In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Learned Helplessness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • International Interests
  • Neural Mechanisms
  • From Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism and Positive Psychology

Psychology Learned Helplessness
J. Bruce Overmier, Mikael Molet
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0112


Learned helplessness arises from experiencing uncontrollable and unpredictable events—usually traumatic ones—and is reflected in a reduced ability to cope with future life challenges; these challenges could be behavioral, psychological/cognitive, or health. Science Direct finds the phrase “learned helplessness” used more than 14,000 times in articles with a minimum of 200 instances every year applied in a wide variety of contexts from animal laboratory to mental health clinics, classrooms, management offices, unemployment, and even voting habits in different countries. This speaks to the popularity of the phenomenon since Seligman and Overmier coined the term in 1967. “Learned helplessness” has been used as a label for both empirical phenomena and for a learned cognitive construct that theoretically accounts for the coping failures. These two are distinct uses. 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 both psychological treatment of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological science more broadly.

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” by Overmier and Seligman 1967, 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 additional 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 toward linking 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 Broadhurst, et al. 2008 (a video), while Maier and Watkins 2000 provides a short written, but somewhat more scholarly, presentation. More recently, Maier and Seligman 2016 integrated the neuroscience research and its implications that the original theory of learned helplessness was, in fact, in error. In the mid-2010s, most of the work is conducted using rats as subjects in neuroscience, and learned helplessness is of less interest in the psychology of learning per se than it was between the 1970s and 1990s.

  • Broadhurst, R., M. Moran, and B. Sparrow. 2008. Learned helplessness. DVD. New York: Insight Media.

    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.

  • 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, 121–151. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199735969.001.0001

    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.

  • Maier, S. F., and Seligman, M. E. P. 2016. Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review 123.4: 349–367.

    DOI: 10.1037/rev0000033

    After a brief review of helplessness, it reviews physiological and neuroscience efforts—primarily those of Maier—to elucidate the brain mechanisms underlying the phenomenon.

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

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

  • 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.2005.03.021

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

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

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4899-0936-7

    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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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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