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Psychology Learned Helplessness
by
J. Bruce Overmier

Introduction

The term “learned helplessness” appears in about three thousand articles in the PsycINFO database, applying it in a wide variety of contexts, from animal laboratory to mental health clinics, to classrooms, to management offices, to unemployment, and even to voting habits in different countries. Learned helplessness has been used as a label for empirical phenomena and for a theoretical account of behaviors, and these two are often confused. Learned helplessness arises from experiencing unpredictable and uncontrollable events—usually traumatic ones—and is reflected in reduced ability to cope with future life challenges; these challenges could be behavioral, psychological/cognitive, or health related. The demonstrations that experiencing uncontrollable, unpredictable traumatic events leads to future failures to cope with environmental challenges are of considerable importance empirically and theoretically, and they inform psychological treatment of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder and psychological science.

General Overviews

We all experience adverse events, and some of these can be traumatic and affect our later lives. Research and theory about experienced traumas that have certain characteristics of uncontrollability and unpredictability have been carefully and deeply explored because the persisting effects of these characteristics are especially dramatic and have been given the name “learned helplessness.” Seligman 1975 was the first to explicate and popularize the broad implications of the early animal experiments and relate them to human challenges. Much research with animals and humans has followed. Overmier and LoLordo 1998 reviews the early work and the many extensions of that research with animal models, and offers criticisms of efforts to reformulate the theory of learned helplessness by including attributions. Peterson, et al. 1993 and Mikulincer 1994 discuss why the early theoretical efforts needed expansion to include cognitive states accessible in humans, such as attributions, and to give an accounting of these developments and their application. Others have looked deeper into the organism to the changes in the brain that mediate the manifest learned helplessness. Maier and Watkins have been leaders in this field, and their orientation has been to link changes in brain physiology to changes in behavior (see Maier and Watkins 2005). LoLordo and Overmier 2011 provides a current review of these physiological researches and puts them into the context of the behavioral work with animals and humans. A quick and easy introduction to the domain can be found in Sparrow, et al. 2008 (a video), while Maier and Watkins 2000 provides a short but somewhat more scholarly presentation.

  • LoLordo, V. M., and J. B. Overmier. 2011. Trauma, learned helplessness, its neuroscience, and implications for posttraumatic stress disorder. In Associative learning and conditioning theory: Human and non-human applications. Edited by T. R. Schachtman and S. Reilly, 121–167. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199735969.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A detailed review of the behavioral and brain experiments aimed at elucidating learned helplessness and the neurophysiological substrate for learned helplessness, with substantial attention to the work of S. F. Maier, L. Watson, and their associates.

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  • Maier, S. F., and L. R. Watkins. 2000. Learned helplessness. In Encyclopedia of psychology. Vol. 4. Edited by A. E. Kazdin, 505–508. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A brief but scholarly presentation of learned helplessness for the person seeking a quick introduction.

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  • Maier, S. F., and L. R. Watkins. 2005. Stressor controllability and learned helplessness: The roles of the dorsal raphe nucleus, serotonin, and corticotropin-releasing factor. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 29.4–5: 829–841.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the analyses of physiological and brain processes that modulate fear and mediate learned helplessness. A concentrated presentation of many experiments.

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  • Mikulincer, M. 1994. Human learned helplessness: A coping perspective. Plenum Series in Social/Clinical Psychology. New York: Plenum.

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    Provides a more contemporary grounding and explanation of the clinical aspects of learned helplessness, with a fuller development of the theoretical constructs of attributions and attributional style as factors contributing to helplessness, hopelessness, and human depression.

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  • Overmier, J. B., and V. M. LoLordo. 1998. Learned helplessness. In Learning and behavior therapy. Edited by W. O’Donohue, 352–373. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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    A thorough critical appraisal of the experimental behavioral analysis of learned helplessness. The focus is on animal model research, but not exclusively so.

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  • Peterson, C., S. F. Maier, and M. E. P. Seligman. 1993. Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A chatty full review of learned helplessness from early researches through biological accounts, selectively presenting a reformulation of theory and how it has been used to explain depression, social problems, and personal health issues. Features “What we know” and “What we don’t know” sections on every topic. It omits some issues, however.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P. 1975. Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

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    The most readable and broadest conceptual presentation of “learned helplessness” science and potential applications, yet filled with sufficient details for most readers.

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  • Sparrow, Betsy, Robert Broadhurst, and Marty Moran. 2008. Learned helplessness. DVD. New York: Insight Media.

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    Introduces many of the concepts of learned helplessness in an accessible way, and reviews briefly many of the topics in this bibliography. Intriguingly, the lead in example of weather is criticized generically by Peterson, Maier, and Seligman.

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Historical Introduction

This section discusses the historical background of learned helplessness. It focuses on the basic phenomenon of learned helplessness, the theory, and the replication of the phenomenon in humans and other species.

Basic Phenomenon

The basic phenomenon demonstrated in laboratory dogs is that experiencing unpredictable, uncontrollable aversive events impairs (1) later ability to “escape” from trauma, (2) ability to learn from successful actions, and (3) emotional responsiveness. Overmier and Seligman 1967 first reported this syndrome of impairments based on research with dogs in the laboratory, named it “learned helplessness,” and theorized about the cognitive mechanisms. Seligman and Maier 1967 followed up on these initial speculations using dogs and confirmed experimentally that uncontrollability of the traumatic events, and not merely exposure to aversive events per se, was a critical feature of the trauma. Although Overmier and Seligman 1967 reported that the proactive effects seemed only temporary, lasting twenty-four hours (a report that led Weiss, et al. 1970 to a particular noradrenergic account and criticism), Overmier and Seligman already had data that indicated that the effects lasted longer (more than a week) if one used “failure of avoidance behavior” rather than “failure of escape behavior” as the behavioral criterion for learned helplessness (see Overmier, et al. 1980, p. 11). Later research (Maier 2001, Overmier 1968, Seligman and Groves 1970) showed that with some repetition of the trauma, or even exposure to simple reminders of the trauma, the learned helplessness phenomenon lasted weeks and months and provided a foundation for explaining important clinical and life phenomena.

  • Maier, S. F. 2001. Exposure to the stressor environment prevents the temporal dissipation of behavioral depression/learned helplessness. Biological Psychiatry 49.9: 763–773.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0006-3223(00)01095-7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Critically important demonstration that the duration of induced learned helplessness can be markedly extended by exposure merely to reminders of the inducing stress.

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  • Overmier, J. B. 1968. Interference with avoidance behavior: Failure to avoid traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology 78.2: 340–343.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0026365Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Showed that learned helplessness is more than interference with escape behavior, but also with general coping behaviors even in the absence of escape contingencies, thus broadening the nature of the original basic phenomenon. This led Overmier, Patterson, and Wielkiewicz 1980 to a retrospective review of the Overmier and Seligman 1967 and the data presented there for interference with avoidance revealing that the latter is more persistent than the originally reported interference with escape.

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  • Overmier, J. B., and M. E. P. Seligman. 1967. Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance learning. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 63.1: 28–33.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0024166Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The seminal initial demonstration of learned helplessness and the initial presentation of the core of the learned helplessness theory.

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  • Overmier, J. B., J. Patterson, and R. M. Wielkiewicz. 1980. Environmental contingencies as sources of stress in animals. In Coping and health. Edited by S. Levine and H. Ursin, 1–38. New York: Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4684-1042-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An analysis of what conditions make stressor events stressful. Also reports on a retrospective review of Overmier and Seligman 1967, finding that disruption of avoidance learning and performance was disrupted for weeks.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P., and D. Groves. 1970. Non-transient learned helplessness. Psychonomic Science 19.3: 191–192.

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    A demonstration that multiple inescapable trauma produces longer-lasting learned helplessness effects, rather than development of tolerance.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P., and S. F. Maier. 1967. Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology 74.1: 1–9.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0024514Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents the key test of the helplessness hypothesis: that uncontrollability of the aversive events is the primary causal factor, not exposure to aversive events per se.

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  • Weiss, J. M., E. A. Stone, and N. Harrell. 1970. Coping behavior and brain norepinephrine level in rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 72.1: 153–160.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0029311Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An important early discovery of a neurotransmitter depletion that is dependent upon uncontrollable trauma. This opened new hypotheses about the mechanisms of learned helplessness and was generative on many additional studies.

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Species Generality

The original discovery of learned helplessness was in dogs, but Maier, et al. 1973; Anisman and Merali 2009; and Pryce, et al. 2012 demonstrated the phenomenon in rats and mice, respectively, while others have done so in an array of other vertebrate species. There exist claims for finding the phenomenon in invertebrates as well, but these claims have been disputed because common consequents do not necessarily imply common mechanism.

  • Anisman, H., and Z. Merali. 2009. Learned helplessness in mice. In Mood and anxiety related phenotypes in mice: Characterization using behavioral tests. Edited by T. D. Gould, 177–196. Totowa, NJ: Humana.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-60761-303-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Not only presents evidence of the phenomenon in mice but also critically discusses the criteria for claiming that learned helplessness has been demonstrated.

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  • Maier, S. F., R. W. Albin, and T. J. Testa. 1973. Failure to learn to escape in rats previously exposed to inescapable shock depends on nature of escape response. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 85.3: 581–592.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0035307Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of several extensions of the learned helpless paradigm to other species, here rats, but especially important because it showed how critical the test task is in demonstrating (or failing to demonstrate) learned helplessness.

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  • Pryce, C. R., D. Azzinnari, H. Sigrist, T. Gschwind, K. P. Lesch, and E. Seifritz. 2012. Establishing a learned-helplessness effect paradigm in C57BL/6 mice: Behavioural evidence for emotional, motivational and cognitive effects of aversive uncontrollability per se. Neuropharmacology 62.1 (January): 358–372.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.08.012Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Extension of the learned helpless paradigm to another species, here mice, which have now become the primary organism for modern analyses of brain and genetic mechanisms of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological phenomena.

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Theory

The preliminary theoretical account initially offered in Overmier and Seligman 1967 was that the manifest learned helplessness was the result of learning that one’s efforts at coping responses and environmental events were independent—a kind of learning different from any recognized by the then popular behaviorist theories. Thus the theory of learned helplessness represented a conceptual shift. It was essentially a cognitive account invoking expectancies about one’s future behavioral competence, and it evoked a strong opposing reaction in the behaviorist learning community. Mowrer and Viek 1948 had earlier noted that some aversive treatments had future effects—even using the term “helplessness,” yet the authors accounted for the effects in terms of behaviorism. What really set “learned helplessness” apart was the cognitive account offered, based on the insight that it was not the aversive events per se but the recognition of them as unpredictable and uncontrollable that resulted in an undermining of motivation to respond. Although the learned helplessness hypothesis was vague concerning rules for transfer between situations and across responses and outcomes, it can be construed as completely general. Williams and Maier 1977, among others, produced results that are consistent with such a broad formulation. It is this generality that makes it suitable for a model of depression—and perhaps for all anxiety disorders (Mineka and Kihlstrom 1978). Although the original experiments used traumatic events, it may be that experiencing any aversive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable may induce learned helplessness; Oakes, et al. 1982 and Sonoda, et al. 1991 show that experiencing uncontrollable, unpredictable appetitive events can impair future coping ability. Thus, although learned helplessness and its theory initially focused on traumatic events, trauma per se may not be a critical feature for causing learned helplessness.

  • Mineka, S., and J. F. Kihlstrom. 1978. Unpredictable and uncontrollable events: A new perspective on experimental neurosis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87.2: 256–271.

    DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.87.2.256Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    After characterizing the key features of the aversive treatments that induced learned helplessness, they compare the work to the classic studies on experimental neuroses, and then hypothesize that the common element is that important life events become unpredictable or uncontrollable, or both. This view is contrasted with traditional psychodynamic and behavioral interpretations.

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  • Mowrer, O. H., and P. Viek. 1948. An experimental analogue of fear from a sense of helplessness. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 43.2 (April): 193–200.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0057165Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early demonstration that exposure to aversive events can impair later coping. However, herein the initial aversive events were actually punishments, and hence under the control of the animal, so that this is different from learned helplessness.

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  • Oakes, W. F., J. L. Rosenblum, and P. E. Fox. 1982. “Manna from heaven”: The effects of noncontingent appetitive reinforcers on learning in rats. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 19.2: 123–126.

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    An important—but one of several—demonstration that exposures to uncontrollable and unpredictable appetitive events can impair later coping and learning, thus extending learned helplessness beyond traumatic events.

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  • Overmier, J. B., and M. E. P. Seligman. 1967. Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance learning. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 63.1: 28–33.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0024166Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The original empirical demonstration of learned helplessness, and a presentation of the basic theory. Includes three experiments with variations on the induction procedures.

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  • Sonoda, A., T. Okayasu, and H. Hirai. 1991. Loss of controllability in appetitive situations interferes with subsequent learning in aversive situations. Animal Learning and Behavior 19.3: 270–275.

    DOI: 10.3758/BF03197886Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An example of an international experiment also demonstrating the broad generality of conditions that can induce learned helplessness–like effects.

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  • Williams, J. L., and S. F. Maier. 1977. Transituational immunization and therapy of learned helplessness in the rat. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 3.3: 240–252.

    DOI: 10.1037/0097-7403.3.3.240Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A demonstration of the behavioral/psychological immunization phenomenon and that the immunization is a general effect protecting the organism.

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Learned Helplessness in Humans

If learned helplessness was only an animal laboratory phenomenon, it would not have generated continuing interest. Glass and Singer 1972 and Hiroto and Seligman 1975 demonstrated the learned helplessness phenomenon in humans. A wide variety of human experiments analogous to the animal experiments have been undertaken since then, and generally they have confirmed empirically that the exposure of humans to unpredictable, uncontrollable events impairs their future coping behaviors. That analogous results were generally obtained in animal and human experiments cemented the idea that learned helplessness might be a useful model for depression. Seligman 1974 emphasizes these parallels. It is argued that learned helplessness can be manifest by humans in a wide range of forms, including school failure (Dweck and Licht 1980) and nonproductive organizations (e.g., Martinko and Gardner 1982). There exist reviews of many kinds of experiments on learned helplessness in humans (e.g., the meta-analysis of Villanova and Peterson 1991, discussed in Peterson, et al. 1993 cited under General Overviews), and such analyses of appropriately conducted existing experiments confirm the existence of learned helplessness in human subjects across diverse induction treatments and tests.

  • Dweck, C. S., and B. G. Licht. 1980. Learned helplessness and intellectual achievement. In Human helplessness: Theory and applications. Edited by J. Garber and M. E. P. Seligman, 197–221. New York: Academic Press.

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    An overview of an important prize-winning body of work in social, educational settings that shows that learned helplessness effects can develop in natural situations, such as the classroom, and can influence educational achievement.

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  • Glass, D. C., and J. E. Singer. 1972. Urban stress: Experiments on noise and social stressors. New York: Academic Press.

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    A very early demonstration of learned helplessness effects in human subjects. In chapter 7, authors describe in detail an experiment by Bruce Reim showing the deleterious proactive effects of exposure to unpredictable and uncontrollable shocks on physiological reactions and later problem-solving competence.

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  • Hiroto, D. S., and M. E. P. Seligman. 1975. Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31.2: 311–327.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0076270Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Critically showed in a cross-tasks design that either aversive instrumental failures or cognitive failures impaired later coping with either instrumental or cognitive tasks. A key demonstration of broad generality of learned helplessness.

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  • Martinko, M. J., and W. L. Gardner. 1982. Learned helplessness: An alternative explanation for performance deficits? Academy of Management Review 7.2: 195–204.

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    Considers that an organization’s personnel management factors can impair employee performance, and sets them in parallel to the learned helplessness–inducing conditions.

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  • Villanova, P., and C. Peterson. 1991. Meta-analysis of human helplessness experiments. Unpublished data. Northern Illinois University. In Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. By C. Peterson, S. F. Maier, and M. E. P. Seligman, 106–109. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Discusses a conceptual and meta-analytic review of a large number of well-designed learned helplessness experiments in humans, carried out by P. Villanova and C. Peterson at Northern Illinois University in 1991. The analysis confirmed the phenomenon, and even suggested it is stronger in humans than in animals. Although unpublished, this is a key reference, and its results are presented in Peterson, et al. 1993 (cited under General Overviews).

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  • Seligman, M. E. P. 1974. Depression and learned helplessness. In The psychology of depression: Contemporary theory and research. Edited by Raymond J. Friedman and Martin M. Katz, 83–126. Washington, DC: Winston.

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    The first scholarly laying out of the hypothesis that learned helplessness could serve as an animal model for human reactive depression. It explores the many parallels between them.

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Applications

The learned helplessness construct has been used to “explain” a variety of human behavioral phenomena. Seligman 1975 first popularized the possibility of learned helplessness accounting for human behavior in a broad sweeping context, including reactive depression, child development, and aging; this proved seminal. Garber and Seligman 1980 includes chapters that link learned helplessness not only to depression but also to intellectual achievement, aging, and coronary disease. Bjørnstad 2006 extends the learned helplessness construct further to account for differences across countries in unemployment and percentages of “discouraged workers” who stop seeking jobs.

  • Bjørnstad, R. 2006. Learned helplessness, discouraged workers, and multiple unemployment equilibria. Journal of Socio-Economics 35.3: 458–475.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2005.11.030Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that job loss and failures in job searches are aversive events that contribute to learned helplessness and eventually to giving up hunting for a job, and that this can contribute to the different levels of unemployment across countries.

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  • Garber, J., and M. E. P. Seligman. 1980. Human helplessness: Theory and applications. New York: Academic Press.

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    A selection of chapters by a number of scholars that has continued to shape the research on this topic. The chapters extend the initial theory to include attributions and show helplessness as a useful construct in analysis of the human situation, broadly conceived.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P. 1975. Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

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    A personalized presentation of the learned helplessness research and theory at the time. It was of interest to scholars yet accessible to the interested layperson. Some sections were speculative, yet the book set the agenda for future research. A fascinating read.

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Clinical Psychology

Seligman 1974, an importantly insightful and exciting analysis, linked learned helplessness to human dysphoria and the diagnostic pathology of human depression—especially “reactive depression,” because reactive depression is thought to be caused by specific experiences (e.g., harm, disaster, crisis, or loss)—and showed that depression has symptomatology that in many ways is paralleled by learned helplessness. The temptation to generalize to all depressions (except manic-depressive disorder) was too much to resist for many, and the learned helplessness paradigm was seen as an animal model for virtually all depression and dysphoria; in generalizing to humans, one needs to take account of the greater cognitive capacities of humans, including not only expectations of lack of competence but also of attributions about oneself (viz., Mikulincer 1994). Alloy, et al. 2008 notes that development of a pessimistic attributional style as the result of failures and uncontrolled negative events seems especially depressogenic and seems to lead to feelings of “hopelessness,” and thence to depression. Depression is especially common in women abused by their spouses. Moreover, these women show a surprising failure to cope with their situation. Walker 2000 and Bargai, et al. 2007 argue that learned helplessness provides insight into their lack of coping and the depression that they experience. Foa, et al. 1992 argues that the learned helplessness phenomenon is actually a better analogue to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than to depression. This may well be correct. One might ask why Seligman did not link learned helplessness to PTSD. In part it is because PTSD was not a recognized diagnostic category until the 1980s. And, further, PTSD has diagnostic features overlapping with depression. In addition, many of the diagnostic features for PTSD are not accessible in animals (e.g., reexperiencing the trauma through flashbacks, reportable nightmares, and impaired concentration). Learned helplessness is widely considered clinically relevant and applicable to a wide variety of human experiences and endeavors (Peterson, et al. 1993).

  • Alloy, L. B., L. Y. Abramson, J. Keyser, R. K. Gerstein, and L. G. Sylvia. 2008. Negative cognitive style. In Risk factors in depression. Edited by K. S. Dobson and D. J. A. Dozois, 237–262. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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    Focuses on the cognitive vulnerability hypothesis of depression. Discusses the importance of negative cognitive style (e.g., “hopelessness”) as a precursor to depression. Notes that cognitive vulnerability is a dimensional rather than a categorical feature.

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  • Bargai, N., G. Ben-Shakhar, and A. Y. Shalev. 2007. Posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in battered women: The mediating role of learned helplessness. Journal of Family Violence 22.5: 267–275.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10896-007-9078-ySave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Empirically demonstrates that learned helplessness mediates between violence exposure and abused women’s mental health issues.

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  • Foa, E., R. Zinbarg, and B. Rothbaum. 1992. Uncontrollability and unpredictability in post-traumatic stress disorder: An animal model. Psychological Bulletin 112.2: 218–238.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.112.2.218Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Primarily focused on PTSD and its causes; ends up suggesting that the causes of PTSD and of learned helplessness are substantially parallel, and hence that learned helplessness may be a useful model of PTSD.

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  • Mikulincer, M. 1994. Human learned helplessness: A coping perspective. Vol. XI. Plenum Series in Social/Clinical Psychology. New York: Plenum.

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    After introducing the animal model, the book focuses on learned helplessness in humans during the prior quarter century. It emphasizes the cognitive features of learned helplessness as modulating motivations and emotions that “explain” performance failures following uncontrollable trauma and other experiences.

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  • Peterson, C., S. F. Maier, and M. E. P. Seligman. 1993. Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Key thinkers critically summarize the research, theory, and applications of learned helplessness. New directions for research and applications are noted, including emphasis on acquiring personal control.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P. 1974. Depression and learned helplessness. In The psychology of depression: Contemporary theory and research. Edited by R. J. Friedman and M. M. Katz, 83–126. Washington, DC: Winston.

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    The first scholarly effort to link learned helplessness seen in animals to human depression, hypothesizing that learned helplessness in animals is a model of depression.

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  • Walker, L. E. A. 2000. The battered woman syndrome. 2d ed. New York: Springer.

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    In a broad analysis of battered women and their characteristics, Walker hypothesizes that learned helplessness caused by abuse is a feature of the battered woman syndrome.

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Drug Development for Depression

The animal model has been used by many to assess potentially therapeutic drugs for human depression based on early analyses suggesting its likely usefulness (Sherman, et al. 1982). This role of a learned helplessness as an animal model for psychopharmacological drug development for depression is a continuing important one (e.g., Maccari and Nicoletti 2011; Pryce, et al. 2011). There are suggestions that there is a genetic basis for vulnerability to learned helplessness, and Schulz, et al. 2012 takes advantage of this to facilitate identification of brain structures that might be ideal targets for drug interventions. As the modern neurophysiological analysis of learned helplessness proceeds, these animal models for drug development are likely to be ever more useful.

  • Maccari, S., and F. Nicoletti. 2011. Agomelatine: Protecting the CNS from the effects of stress. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics 17.5: 269–270.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-5949.2010.00174.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of many possible examples of using the learned helplessness model to assess the potential for a drug in treating stress-related disorders.

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  • Pryce, C. R., D. Azzinnari, S. Spinelli, E. Seifritz, M. Tegethoff, and G. Meinlschmidt. 2011. Helplessness: A systematic translational review of theory and evidence for its relevance to understanding and treating depression. Pharmacology and Therapeutics 132.3: 242–267.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2011.06.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that a serious shortcoming in drug development research is that although the learned helplessness animal model has been used, albeit underused, in the development of pharmacological treatments for depression, the model has scarcely been used at all with human subjects for preclinical drug development.

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  • Schulz, D., D. Smith, M. Yu, H. Lee, and F. A. Henn. 2013. Selective breeding for helplessness in rats alters the metabolic profile of the hippocampus and frontal cortex: A 1H-MRS study at 9.4 T. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology 16.1: 199–212.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1461145711001994Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses MRI to measure metabolic profiles in helplessness prones and in normal rats to identify key CNS structures and key neurochemistry for learned helplessness. This is application of the most modern technology to the understanding of the brain mechanisms of learned helplessness.

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  • Sherman, A. D., J. L. Sacquitne, and F. Petty. 1982. Specificity of the learned helplessness model of depression. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior 16.3: 449–454.

    DOI: 10.1016/0091-3057(82)90451-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Authors assessed the potential value of learned helplessness animal behavior as a model for depression, and specifically for detecting likely antidepressants by testing known antidepressant drugs’ and other psychoactive drugs’ effectiveness in relieving learned helplessness. Learned helplessness was only relieved by known effective antidepressants and not by the other drugs. Since then, the model has been used for screening antidepressant potential.

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Education

Learned helplessness has come to play a central role in the analysis of the determiners of academic achievement of children, especially girls. Children try to cope with the questions teachers ask, and, depending on the answer, the teachers typically give immediate feedback; if the answer is wrong, the feedback can be an aversive experience for the child. Dweck and Bush 1976 showed that the feedback that primary school children received for the answers in classrooms influenced their future achievements in that class and in later classes. Negative feedback was especially debilitating to girls when received from female teachers (most common in elementary classrooms), and it affected the students’ sense of their abilities and their achievement motivation. Wide-ranging follow-up studies led to elaborations of this analysis and to the role of negative feedback and failure experiences in fostering general negative self-attributions and helpless responses to future challenges. Dweck 2012 uses a theory of self that derives from these studies to develop a positive approach to preventing the development of negative self-attributions that can hinder success in any endeavor. American Psychological Association 2011 traces Dweck’s research and this transformation. Boggiano 1998 also explores learned helplessness as a determiner of student problem-solving successes, finding that intrinsically motivated students were more resistant to failure feedback than extrinsically motivated students, and that this motivational factor was more important than initial ability.

  • American Psychological Association. 2011. Carol S. Dweck: Award for distinguished scientific contributions. American Psychologist 66.8: 658–660.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0024397Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces Dweck’s personal academic development and cites her researches—with references—and theorizing from learned helplessness to broader theories of self. Dweck was the 2011 winner of the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.

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  • Boggiano, A. K. 1998. Maladaptive achievement patterns: A test of the diathesis-stress analysis of helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.6: 1681–1695.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.74.6.1681Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that perceptions of feedback and past autonomy or support in the classroom influence whether the motivational approach is intrinsic or extrinsic. Builds on the revised theory of learned helplessness that focuses on experience-based attributions.

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  • Dweck, C. S. 2012. Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential. New York: Robinson.

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    A popular presentation. Notes how different children respond to academic challenges and puzzles and discusses the roles of the interactions of successes and failures, and of the feedback children receive in each case. Discusses the importance of maximizing success experiences and positive feedback from childhood onward for developing attitudes and self-perceptions that allow the individual to succeed in sports, business, and love, with many examples. Distinguishes between ability and accomplishment. Although not a scholarly tome, there is much to be learned here.

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  • Dweck, C. S., and E. S. Bush. 1976. Sex differences in learned helplessness: I. Differential debilitation with peer and adult evaluators. Developmental Psychology 12.2: 147–156.

    DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.12.2.147Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Details critical early experiments on the effects of negative feedback given to students and how it shapes their thinking about themselves. Also shows that the sex of the teacher interacts with the sex of the student in how the feedback is interpreted by the student.

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Health

Early on, animal experiments suggested that being in a state of learned helplessness might have important consequences for health. Laudenslager, et al. 1983 and Mormede, et al. 1988 showed that exposure to uncontrolled aversive events that would induce helplessness impaired immune system competence. Whether such effects are of functional significance is not known from these studies. However, Sklar and Anisman 1979 showed that exposure to a single session of helplessness-inducing inescapable shocks resulted in earlier cancer tumor appearance, more rapid growth of the tumor, and decreased survival time, whereas exposure to identical escapable shocks had no effect on tumors. Thus we may conclude that it is likely that learned helplessness increases the health vulnerability of the helpless organism. Following on such findings, Taylor, et al. 1984 (and others) explored how personal expectations of control (or their absence) are related to the progress of cancers in humans. In another physical health domain, Weiss 1968 showed in animals that helplessness-inducing treatments also appeared to cause gastric ulcers. In recent years, such peptic ulcers have been attributed to a bacterial infection of Helicobacter pylori. However, a recent analysis, in Overmier and Murison 2000, suggests that helplessness contributes to the ulceration and the bacterial growth in humans.

  • Laudenslager, M. L., S. M. Ryan, R. C. Drugan, R. L. Hyson, and S. F. Maier. 1983. Coping and immunosuppression: Inescapable but not escapable shock suppresses lymphocyte proliferation. Science 221.4610: 568–570.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.6603018Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Importantly shows that the learned helplessness state is not merely behavioral but also impairs important physiological survival coping mechanisms.

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  • Mormede, P., R. Dantzer, B. Michaud, K. W. Kelley, and M. Le Moal. 1988. Influence of stressor predictability and behavioral control on lymphocyte reactivity, antibody responses and neuroendocrine activation in rats. Physiology and Behavior 43.5: 577–583.

    DOI: 10.1016/0031-9384(88)90211-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Important international paper that shows that the learned helplessness state is not merely behavioral but also impairs important physiological survival coping mechanisms.

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  • Overmier, J. B., and R. Murison. 2000. Anxiety and helplessness in the face of stress predisposes, precipitates, and sustains gastric ulceration. Behavioural Brain Research 110.1–2: 161–174.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0166-4328(99)00193-XSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the arguments about the cause(s) of peptic ulcer and the supporting data. The data supporting bacterial infection as the primary cause are found wanting, while the data for a causal role of uncontrollable stressors are reinforced.

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  • Sklar, L. S., and H. Anisman. 1979. Stress and coping factors influence tumor growth. Science 205.4405 (3 August): 513–515.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.109924Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Importantly shows that when in the state of learned helplessness, there is increased vulnerability to cancer. This shows that the changes in the immune system are of functional significance.

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  • Taylor, S. E., R. R. Lichtman, and J. V. Wood. 1984. Attributions, beliefs about control, and adjustment to breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46.3: 489–502.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.46.3.489Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that absence of attributions of personal control is associated with poorer coping and worse outcomes for breast cancer.

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  • Weiss, J. M. 1968. Effects of coping responses on stress. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 65.2: 251–260.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0025562Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Weiss’s paper showed that although extended exposure to uncontrollable aversive events induces gastric ulcer, exposure to those same events, when controllable, has no such effect, thus linking learned helplessness and gastric disease.

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Aging

Many senior citizens find themselves in institutional settings. Typically, institutions are highly regimented and organized as to permissible activities and schedules—that is, the formerly independently living individual enters a situation in which he or she experiences a loss of control. Langer and Rodin 1976 and Schulz 1976 showed that allowing the patients more choices and greater control over their activities resulted in improved functionality, greater happiness, and fewer health complaints. Although this experiment did not deal directly with depression, McIntosh, et al. 1994 notes that depression is not at all uncommon in institutionalized senior citizens, and that it is associated with a sense of helplessness. Fending off helplessness-related depression is critical because, as Schulz, et al. 2002 notes, it is also associated with a dramatic increase in the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases.

  • Langer, E. J., and J. Rodin. 1976. The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34.2: 191–198.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.34.2.191Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A clever empirical demonstration of the positive physical and mental health effects from giving institutionalized aged persons more control over their lives.

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  • McIntosh, J. L., J. F. Santos, R. W. Hubbard, and J. C. Overholser. 1994. Suicide assessment and intervention with the elderly. In Elder suicide: Research, theory and treatment. Edited by J. L. McIntosh, J. F. Santos, R. W. Hubbard, and J. C. Overholser, 163–197. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10159-005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the linkages among suicide, depression, and sense of helplessness in senior citizens. Especially notes how this differs from that in younger clients.

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  • Schulz, R. 1976. Effects of control and predictability on the physical and psychological well-being of the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 33.5: 563–573.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.33.5.563Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Schulz showed in this study that increasing predictability and control for institutionalized senior citizens resulted in improved physical and mental health.

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  • Schulz, R., R. A. Drayer, and B. I. Rollman. 2002. Depression as a risk factor for non-suicide mortality in the elderly. Biological Psychiatry 52.3: 205–225.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0006-3223(02)01423-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Links depression in later life to a doubling of mortality in individuals who have had a heart attack or stroke.

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Other Effects

The basic observed learned helplessness phenomenon was a behavioral one. But it turns out that a variety of other systems are also impacted by learned helplessness induction treatments, even in the absence of manifest behavioral effects. For example, Maier, et al. 1972 found that the induction of learned helplessness resulted in reduced expression of aggression and defensive behaviors. And general cognitive processes are impaired as well. Minor, et al. 1984 found that learned helplessness altered how attention was directed, while Jackson, et al. 1980 found deficits are associative processes. Exactly why and how these arise from learned helplessness is not yet understood, as discussed in LoLordo and Taylor 2001. Of perhaps broader interest is the finding in Dess, et al. 1989 that learned helplessness induces a dietary finickiness. This finding has been replicated in humans, perhaps giving insight into altered food consumption patterns by depressed patients. Alternatively, it may also have relevance for obesity, because Friedman and Brownell 1995 suggests that depression and obesity are likely linked.

  • Dess, N. K., T. R. Minor, and J. Brewer. 1989. Suppression of feeding and body weight by inescapable shock: Modulation by quinine adulteration, stress reinstatement, and controllability. Physiology and Behavior 45.5: 975–983.

    DOI: 10.1016/0031-9384(89)90224-2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Key demonstration that the helplessness induction also alters the eating behaviors of the animals, making them more finicky. Dess later extended this idea to human studies, with similar results, perhaps giving insight into altered consumption patterns by depressed patients.

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  • Friedman, M. A., and K. D. Brownell. 1995. Psychological correlates of obesity: Moving to the next research generation. Psychological Bulletin 117.1: 3–20.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the ambiguous relations among obesity, dieting, and depression, and suggests that the proper studies for illuminating the causal relations between depression and obesity are yet to be done.

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  • Jackson, R. L., J. H. Alexander, and S. F. Maier. 1980. Learned helplessness, inactivity, and associative deficits: Effects of inescapable shock on response choice escape learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 6.1: 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1037/0097-7403.6.1.1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A clear demonstration of a cognitive dysfunction independent of the coping activity impairment.

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  • LoLordo, V. M., and T. L. Taylor. 2001. Effects of uncontrollable aversive events: Some unsolved puzzles. In Handbook of contemporary learning theories. Edited by R. R. Mowrer and S. B. Klein, 469–504. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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    Reviews the behavioral and cognitive features of learned helplessness in a critical manner, and dismisses some claims.

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  • Maier, S. F., C. Anderson, and D. A. Lieberman. 1972. Influence of control of shock on subsequent shock-elicited aggression. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 81.1: 94–100.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0033329Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Illustrates another basic adaptive biological system impaired by learned helplessness.

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  • Minor, T. R., R. L. Jackson, and S. F. Maier. 1984. Effects of task-irrelevant cues and reinforcement delay on choice-escape learning following inescapable shock: Evidence for a deficit in selective attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 10.4: 543–556.

    DOI: 10.1037/0097-7403.10.4.543Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Illustrates a new cognitive process altered by the treatments that induce learned helplessness.

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Controversies

The theory of learned helplessness has always been controversial. The original conception of learned helplessness was a cognitive one that hypothesized that extended exposure to uncontrollable, unpredictable aversive events established an expectancy that future responses would be useless, and hence helplessness is observed. Interesting scientific debates were published (e.g., Seligman, et al. 1980). Learned helplessness was not the only possible account for the proactive interference phenomenon observed. For example, Black 1977 argued that it could be response competition from learning to hold still, but several papers have shown empirically that this account is wrong (e.g., Lawry, et al. 1978; Maier 1970). Learned helplessness was defended against such “in principle”–based challenges by Maier and Seligman 1976, and none of the in-principle alternatives has found support. More recently, there have been attempts by Minor, et al. 1991 and Overmier 1998 to restructure learned helplessness’s place in the general domain of stress research. The core idea in this restructuring is to view learned helplessness not as an emergent phenomenon but as the basic reaction of the organism to trauma, and that the evolved mechanisms of instrumental learning and classical conditionings are two kinds of coping mechanisms that reduce trauma. This line of reanalysis has been central to Maier’s and Watkins’s work in understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms of the learned helplessness phenomenon (Maier, et al. 2006).

  • Black, A. H. 1977. Comments on “Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence” by Maier and Seligman. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 106.1: 41–43.

    DOI: 10.1037/0096-3445.106.1.41Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An example of those works that argue against cognitive accounts of the coping failures that follow exposure to unpredictable and uncontrollable aversive events.

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  • Lawry, J. A., V. Lupo, J. B. Overmier, J. Kochevar, K. L. Hollis, and D. C. Anderson. 1978. Interference with avoidance behavior as a function of qualitative properties of inescapable shocks. Animal Learning and Behavior 6.2: 147–154.

    DOI: 10.3758/BF03209593Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Assesses (a) why some earlier animal experiments failed to demonstrate learned helplessness (it was due to how they produced their aversive events with DC current), and (b) whether helplessness was simply learning to hold still during the exposures to aversive events (it was not).

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  • Maier, S. F. 1970. Failure to escape traumatic electric shock: Incompatible skeletal-motor responses or learned helplessness? Learning and Motivation 1.2 (May): 157–169.

    DOI: 10.1016/0023-9690(70)90082-2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Critical demonstration that exposure to uncontrollable and unpredictable aversive events interferes with learning to hold still as a coping response.

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  • Maier, S. F., and M. E. P. Seligman. 1976. Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 105.1: 3–46.

    DOI: 10.1037/0096-3445.105.1.3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In the controversy over the cognitive aspects of learned helplessness, the authors defend it against a range of behavioristic accounts. Excellent early review.

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  • Maier, S. F., J. Amat, M. V. Baratta, E. Paul, and L. R. Watkins. 2006. Behavioral control, the medial prefrontal cortex, and resilience. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 8.4: 397–406.

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    Argues that the role of control is using the medial prefrontal cortex to modulate the effects of uncontrollable trauma on the dorsal raphe.

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  • Minor, T. R., N. K. Dess, and J. B. Overmier. 1991. Inverting the traditional view of “learned helplessness.” In Fear, avoidance, and phobias: A fundamental analysis. Edited by M. R. Denny, 87–133. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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    Argues that as intriguing as the learned helplessness hypothesis is, it is not the learned helplessness treatment that induces new cognitions, but rather the controllability treatment that alters the fear cognitions and fear states from the aversive events.

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  • Overmier, J. B. 1998. Learned helplessness: State or stasis of the art? Paper presented at the XXVI International Congress of Psychology, Montreal, August 1996. In Advances in psychological science. Vol. 2, Biological and cognitive aspects. Edited by M. Sabourin, F. Craik, and M. Robert, 301–315. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

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    Criticizes the core assumption of the triadic experiments underlying learned helplessness, which is that the untreated individual is the normative baseline, and argues for an anagenic analysis, taking the unpredictable, uncontrollable condition as the baseline. Also adds behavioral and psychological coping factors as stress reducers.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P., J. M. Weiss, M. Weinraub, and A. Schulman. 1980. Coping behavior: Learned helplessness, physiological change and learned inactivity. Behaviour Research and Therapy 18.5: 459–512.

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    A debate between two leading researchers (Seligman and Weiss) regarding the foundational data and hypothesized mechanisms of learned helplessness. An interesting contrast in perspectives.

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Uncontrollability and Unpredictability

The original theoretical approach had an inherent problem, in that the specific identification and “naming” of the cognitive state constrained the experimental research. Because the key state in the theory was a cognitive state of “helplessness” arising from perceived “uncontrollability,” the degree of control afforded the organism became the only operational factor to receive general attention, despite the fact that the inducing aversive events were typically unpredictable as well as uncontrollable—as noted herein. But not every experiment on trauma found learned helplessness in its common form of behavioral deficits and cognitive/learning deficits; these failures often occurred when the aversive events were actually partially controllable or some aspect of the aversive event or of the postevent (safety) period was signaled. Not surprisingly then, Overmier and Wielkiewicz 1983 argues that the “unpredictability” may be an important factor and has separable, albeit less dramatic, effects from uncontrollability. With a specific focus on varying predictability, Dess and Overmier 1989 shows that experiencing unpredictability of aversive events induces a nonspecific associative or learning impairment separate from the behavioral impairment—an impairment the authors called “general learned irrelevance” (p. 1). Unpredictability of the traumatic events is an additional causal feature of the proactive interferences with learning seen in learned helplessness syndrome (Linden, et al. 1997). Operational detection of this additional phenomenon suggests that the two features of unpredictability and uncontrollability may operate as separable—and possibly orthogonal—causal factors in producing separable facets of the commonly observed cognitive and behavioral deficits of the learned helplessness symptomatology. In this view, the uncontrollable and unpredictable inducing trauma treatment is considered the “baseline stress condition,” which has a range of debilitating effects on the organism, including behavioral, cognitive, and physiological effects. A situation that affords any kind of behavioral control over duration, intensity, or quality of the aversive events, or that affords any kind of prediction about onset, duration, termination, or future likelihood of the aversive events, would serve to reduce the severity and/or the impact of the stressor. The absence of either of these two kinds of “coping” opportunities alone likely would result in different loci of impact on the manifest symptoms. Dess, et al. 1983 shows different loci of effects of unpredictability and uncontrollability on the stressfulness of traumatic experiences, during the exposure and in response to future challenges or trauma.

  • Dess, N. K., and J. B. Overmier. 1989. General learned irrelevance: Proactive effects on Pavlovian conditioning in dogs. Learning and Motivation 20:1–14.

    DOI: 10.1016/0023-9690(89)90028-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that animals can learn that aversive events are unpredictable in a general sense, and that this learning impairs future learning about signaling even when new stimuli are used. It is either a part of learned helplessness or a stimulus analogue to it.

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  • Dess, N. K., D. Linwick, J. Patterson, J. B. Overmier, and S. Levine. 1983. Immediate and proactive effects of controllability and predictability on plasma cortisol responses to shocks in dogs. Behavioral Neuroscience 97.6 (December): 1005–1016.

    DOI: 10.1037/0735-7044.97.6.1005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Unique in systematically and independently manipulating uncontrollability and unpredictability to show their independent and joint effects on induced stress responses.

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  • Linden, D. R., L. M. Savage, and J. B. Overmier. 1997. General learned irrelevance: A Pavlovian analog to learned helplessness. Learning and Motivation 28.2: 230–248.

    DOI: 10.1006/lmot.1996.0963Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A more extensive demonstration of learning irrelevance that spans situations and is very general.

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  • Overmier, J. B., and R. M. Wielkiewicz. 1983. On unpredictability as a causal factor in “learned helplessness.” Learning and Motivation 14.3 (August): 324–337.

    DOI: 10.1016/0023-9690(83)90020-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A demonstration and formal reporting of unpredictability as a factor in learned helplessness.

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  • Overmier, J. B., J. Patterson, and R. M. Wielkiewicz. 1980. Environmental contingencies as sources of stress in animals. In Coping and health. Edited by S. Levine and H. Ursin, 1–38. New York: Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4684-1042-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An analysis of what makes stressor events stressful (it is not the event per se), and offers a model (see figure 7) of how a dimension of uncontrollable to controllable interacts with a dimension of unpredictable to predictable to produce a variety of different patterns of outcomes. Also provides early demonstration of the effects of unpredictability.

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Limitations and Extensions

Alternative or elaborated conceptualizations of learned helplessness seem to be demanded by the fact that the array of symptoms of depression is not always found in every depressed patient. The problem for the original theory of learned helplessness in accounting for the various patterns was that the theory invoked a single intervening cognitive state (“learned helplessness”) to account for all symptoms. Thus there should be a substantial correlation among the symptoms across cases. However, that high correlation does not always obtain. Various explanatory factors have been invoked idiosyncratically and nonsystematically, including social contexts, competitive challenges, and imaginal style. To more systematically address this lack of correlation, a reformulated theoretical approach was developed that invoked additional hypothetical constructs in the causal chain between traumatic experience and the manifest symptomatology. Abramson, et al. 1978 puts forth a reformulated theory of learned helplessness that changed the focus of research on the relation between learned helplessness and depression. This work asserts a need to understand the “attributions” a person makes about aversive experiences to predict its effect on future behavior. It argues that the actual experience a person has with aversive events as controllable or uncontrollable is not as critical as whether the experience is perceived as controllable or uncontrollable, and that this perception is influenced by prior biases and expectations. More important are three additionally hypothesized attributional facets of the person about the perceived uncontrollability: (1) whether the attribution is to an internal factor or external factor, (2) whether the lack of control is attributed to global or situational specific factors, and (3) whether perceived uncontrollability is attributed to a stable or an unstable factor. Attributions (or not) of internal, global, and stable will determine the specific symptoms and the persistence of expectations of future helplessness and ensuing motivational and cognitive deficits. The negativity of the person’s attributional style interacts with the negativity of the precipitating event to determine the likelihood of a sense of helplessness that underlies depression. Abramson and colleagues argued that it might not require a very negative event to induce depression in someone with a very negativistic attributional style. This theory and extensions of it continue to generate fruitful research, as illustrated in Gibb, et al. 2004 and Peterson and Seligman 1984. Because this reformulation introduces additional cognitive processes of perceptual biases and multiple attributions as antecedents to the critical mediating cognition of learned helplessness, it increases substantially the demands on the measurement of perceptions and attributional states, thus leading us further away from critical consideration of the basic inducing trauma as causal, as noted also by Deuser and Anderson 1995 and Godoy and Fierro 1988. In addition to the reformulation in Abramson, et al. 1978 of the learned helplessness theory, Abramson, et al. 1989 uses the theory to guide the way we think about forms of depression, and to introduce a new form a depression called “hopelessness depression.” Thus we see an ongoing interplay between the explanation of depression and that which is to be explained. Both of these revisions have generated enormous amounts of research, but much of it is focused on issues of measurement of cognitive states rather than depression.

  • Abramson, L. Y., G. Metalsky, and L. B. Alloy. 1989. Hopelessness depression: A theory-based subtype of depression. Psychological Review 96.2: 358–372.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.96.2.358Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presentation of a further revision of the reformulated learned helplessness theory of depression. Also specifically suggests a reformulation of the subtypes of depression, introducing a new one. This paper has been especially generative of new researches on depression.

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  • Abramson, L. Y., M. E. P. Seligman, and J. Teasdale. 1978. Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87.1: 49–74.

    DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offers a reformulation of the basic learned helplessness theory of depression to take into account cognitive biases and attributions as important modulators of the experiences, and also whether or not some or all symptoms of depression result. An important step away from an operationally researchable phenomenon.

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  • Deuser, W. E., and C. A. Anderson. 1995. Controllability attributions and learned helplessness: Some methodological and conceptual problems. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 16.3: 297–318.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15324834basp1603_3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Assesses hundreds of experiments that purport to test the attributions hypothesized in the reformulated theory of learned helplessness.

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  • Gibb, B. E., L. B. Alloy, L. Y. Abramson, C. G. Beevers, and I. W. Miller. 2004. Cognitive vulnerability to depression: A taxometric analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 113.1 (February): 81–89.

    DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.113.1.81Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seeks to understand the variations in manifest symptoms of depression by conceptualizing vulnerabilities as dimensionally related to various attributions. An example of the growing research on attributions hypothesized in the reformulations of learned helplessness theories of depression.

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  • Godoy, A., and A. Fierro. 1988. Incontrolabilidad objectiva y percepción de incontrolabilidad. Revista de Psicologia General y Applicada 42.1: 55–66.

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    Studies the relation between experienced uncontrollability or controllability and how the individual may perceive it as controllable or uncontrollable, respectively. Also shows the international interest in following this research line.

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  • Peterson, C., and M. E. P. Seligman. 1984. Causal explanations as a risk factor for depression: Theory and evidence. Psychological Review 91.3: 347–374.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.91.3.347Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A major analysis of attributions as determinant factors in depression and an important “defense” of the reformulated theory of depression.

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International Interests

Much of the work on learned helplessness in animals and humans has been carried out in the United States. But the topic is of international interest, as well, and increasingly so, as revealed by international reviews such as Hunziker 2005, Imada and Kitaguchi 2002, Maldonado 2002, and Zhukov and Vinogradova 2002.

Neural Mechanisms

Integrated behavioral acts reflect the activity of the brain, and changes in behavior reflect changes in the brain. Thus it is not surprising that over the decades there has been an increasing search for the neural mechanisms that underlie the learned helplessness phenomena. Among the earliest was Weiss, et al. 1970, which detected short-term shifts in brain amines induced by the learned helplessness causal operations. These changes proved too short term to account for the behavioral phenomena observed, but it was the first major step in the exploration of neurophysiological mechanisms of learned helplessness. Other related research efforts followed (e.g., Anisman and Zacharko 1992), with the most sustained and systematic pursuit of physiological mechanisms carried out by Maier and Watkins and their colleagues. Review of this research is too complex for this entry, but the essence is that the effects of learned helplessness arise from altered neurotransmitter action in the dorsal raphe nucleus, and that the blockade of helplessness when the trauma is escapable is a result of a glutaminergic modulation from the ventral medial prefrontal cortex onto the GABAergic neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus, which inhibit serotonin neurons in the raphe, as illustrated by Maier and Watkins 2010 and Rozeske, et al. 2011. Amat, et al. 2008, and Maier and Watkins 2010 show that the inhibitory function of the medial prefrontal cortex—a region associated with cognitive expectations—on the dorsal raphe also seems to account for the immunization against learned helplessness. Amat, et al. 2006 and Maier, et al. 2006 seem to be on the verge of giving us a clear understanding of the neural mechanisms of learned helplessness—and possibly of its opposite, learned optimism, as well. Bauer, et al. 2003 and other works provide converging neuroimaging data obtained from humans.

  • Amat, J., E. Paul, L. R. Watkins, and S. F. Maier. 2008. Activation of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex during an uncontrollable stressor reproduces both the immediate and long-term protective effects of behavioral control. Neuroscience 154.4: 1178–1186.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2008.04.005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Key illustration that it is the activation in the cognitive centers of the brain through the experience of control that inhibits the dorsal raphe. The dorsal raphe seems to be activated by learned helplessness treatments to produce the vast symptomatology of learned helplessness.

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  • Amat, J., E. Paul, C. Zarza, L. R. Watkins, and S. F. Maier. 2006. Previous experience with behavioral control over stress blocks the behavioral and dorsal raphe nucleus activating effects of later uncontrollable stress: Role of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience 26.51: 13264–13272.

    DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3630-06.2006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Elucidates the basic brain mechanisms for immunization against learned helplessness.

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  • Anisman, H., and R. M. Zacharko. 1992. Depression as a consequence of inadequate neurochemical adaptation in response to stressors. British Journal of Psychiatry, Supplement 15:36–43.

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    A review by key researchers on the effects of stress on the CNS neurochemistry. Discusses not only the effects but also the individual differences and suggests the need for genetic assessments of vulnerability to trauma.

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  • Bauer, H., J. Pripfl, C. Lamm, C. Prainsack, and N. Taylor. 2003. Functional neuroanatomy of learned helplessness. Neuroimage 20.2: 927–939.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1053-8119(03)00363-XSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Illustrates the application of modern neuroimaging work to identify active and inactivated brain regions in humans experiencing learned helplessness.

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  • Maier, S. F., and L. R. Watkins. 2010. Role of the medial prefrontal cortex in coping and resilience. Brain Research 1355 (8 October): 52–60.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.08.039Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A readable review of the authors’ research and thinking about the central neural mechanisms of learned helplessness. Provides an interesting contrast to their empirical articles, which are complex and often difficult to follow for all but the neuroscientist.

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  • Maier, S. F., J. Amat, M. V. Baratta, E. Paul, and L. R. Watkins. 2006. Behavioral control, the medial prefrontal cortex, and resilience. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 8.4: 397–406.

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    Identifies how brain regions change activity under conditions of controllability and uncontrollability, and how prior experience with controllability prevents the brain changes that normally accompany the experience of uncontrollability.

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  • Rozeske, R. R., A. K. Evans, M. G. Frank, L. R. Watkins, Christopher A. Lowry, and S. F. Maier. 2011. Uncontrollable, but not controllable, stress desensitizes 5-HT1A receptors in the dorsal raphe nucleus. Journal of Neuroscience 31.40 (5 October): 14107–14115.

    DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3095-11.2011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    More precisely identifies the brain regions that are sensitive to uncontrollable trauma, and how they interact with the behavior modulating parts of the brain downstream. Provides an apparent neurophysiological account of learned helplessness.

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  • Weiss, J. M., E. A. Stone, and N. Harrell. 1970. Coping behavior and brain norepinephrine level in rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 72.1: 153–160.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0029311Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A very early discovery of a neurotransmitter depletion that was dependent upon uncontrollable trauma. Though short-lived, this depletion was initially thought to be a potential basis for learned helplessness. It is important because it opened a new line of analysis into the behavioral phenomenon and led to the discovery of many other CNS changes that result from exposure to inescapable events but not from exposure to matched escapable aversive events.

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From Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism and Positive Psychology

A broadly construed learned helplessness hypothesis would suggest that a prior history of control over aversive events could immunize an animal against learned helplessness developing from experiencing inescapable aversive events, even when the immunization and test phases occur in different situations and require dissimilar escape responses. Williams and Maier 1977 demonstrates such immunization, showing that prior experience with escape markedly reduces the ability of inescapable trauma to produce learned helplessness, even in a different context (see also Nakajima, et al. 1999 and Volpicelli, et al. 1983). Seligman 1991 suggests such immunization effects can be built on to foster more resilient children. Based on the empirical animal findings and Seligman’s theorizing, Gillham, et al. 1996 considers whether children can be immunized against the aversive experiences that they may have. A large-scale program has been developed for applying such immunization “training” in a school system—apparently with some successes (see Reivich, et al. 2005). Immunization may also have implications for vulnerability to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If learned helplessness effects are important for PTSD, then one factor that might distinguish those who develop PTSD following a trauma from those who do not is the presence of immunizing experiences in the lives of the latter. Reivich, et al. 2011 follows this line of thought to suggest that soldiers might be immunized against PTSD. Researches on behavioral immunization against learned helplessness and behavioral therapies for learned helplessness provide the basic substrate for the relatively new areas of learned optimism and positive psychology.

  • Gillham, J. E., K. J. Reivich, L. H. Jaycox, and M. E. P. Seligman. 1996. Can we immunize school children against depression? Clinician’s Research Digest 14.7 (July).

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    Provides background for the Penn Resiliency Program.

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  • Nakajima, M., S. Nakajima, and H. Imada. 1999. General learned irrelevance and its prevention. Learning and Motivation 30.4: 265–280.

    DOI: 10.1006/lmot.1999.1035Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates the parallel immunization against learned irrelevance, thus further binding learned irrelevance closer to learned helplessness.

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  • Reivich, K. J., M. E. P. Seligman, and S. McBride. 2011. Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. American Psychologist 66.1: 25–34.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0021897Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the US Army Master Resilience Trainer course, which is part of the comprehensive soldier fitness program.

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  • Reivich, K. J., J. E. Gillham, T. M. Chaplin, and M. E. P. Seligman. 2005. From helplessness to optimism: The role of resilience in treating and preventing depression in youth. In Handbook of resilience in children. Edited by Sam Goldstein and Robert B. Brooks, 223–237. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/b107978Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview and review of the two programs implemented in schools to fend off depression—especially in children with co-occurring conduct problems.

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  • Seligman, M. E. P. 1991. Learned optimism. New York: A. A. Knopf.

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    Another key synthesis that works from basic research to new conceptualizations of how we might improve our fellow humans’ lives psychologically, and even suggests that psychology should be more about psychological strength than treating mental illness.

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  • Volpicelli, J. R., R. R. Ulm, A. Altenor, and M. E. P. Seligman. 1983. Learned mastery in the rat. Learning and Motivation 14.2: 204–222.

    DOI: 10.1016/0023-9690(83)90006-1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A key early demonstration that animals can be immunized against learned helplessness. This was foundational to moving thinking from helplessness to resilience and even to learned optimism.

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  • Williams, J. L., and S. F. Maier. 1977. Transituational immunization and therapy of learned helplessness in the rat. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 3.3: 240–252.

    DOI: 10.1037/0097-7403.3.3.240Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Importantly showed that immunization is a transituational phenomenon, changing the organism from victim to master of its environment in nonsituationally specific ways.

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LAST MODIFIED: 03/19/2013

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199828340-0112

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