Learned Helplessness

Title:  Learned Helplessness 

Authors: Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D

Journal:  Annual Review of Medicine

Year of Publication: 1972 Volume: 23 Pages: 407-412

Hypothesis:   It is the uncontrollable nature of inescapable shocks that produce learned helplessness and not shocks themselves.

Subjects:  Dogs

Methods: Dogs in the control group were placed in a shuttle box and administered electrical shocks.  The shuttle box had shocks on one side, a divider in the middle, and a side with no shocks. These dogs were allowed to move freely from the shock side to the no shock side.    In the experimental group dogs were restrained in a Pavlovian hammock and given uncontrollable shocks. Later these dogs were placed in a shuttle box and given shocks. Researchers observed response to the shocks in both groups.

Results:  In the control group the dogs would run frantically, defecate, urinate and howl until they accidently jump over the divider.  With subsequent trials the dogs learn to quickly move to the non-shocking side of the shuttle box. However, in the experimental group when the dogs who received uncontrollable shocks were placed in a shutter box with shocks they did not try to escape.  In instances where the dogs appeared to accidently escape the shocks they did not learn that jumping the divider provided relief from shocks.  

Connect to two topics from our class:    Experimental psychologists focus on behavior that is reinforced by rewards or punishment that a subject could control such as operant conditioning, which we discussed in class.  Learned Helplessness is different from operant conditioning in that there is no reward or punishment given and the subject has no control over what happens to them. In away Learned helplessness is almost the opposite of operant conditioning because dogs learn that they cannot escape by receiving uncontrollable shocks rather than some sort of conditional reinforcer.      Additionally, in class we discussed depression. Helpless subjects are often thought to be a good model for depression in humans, and that humans that are depressed may actually be helpless due to incontrollable situations they have experienced.  


Published by Ryan David Tuttle

PhD Graduate student studying Behavioral Neuroscience, Addiction, Stress, Behavioral Economics, and Individual Differences. Former member Ministerial Servant and Pioneer in a Spanish speaking congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

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