Learned helplessness

We hear and use the concept of Learned Helplessness more often these days. This concept, especially encountered in depression, has a large share in the person’s feeling hopeless, depressed and worthless. Individuals who think that they cannot cope with the situations they live in, solve problems or have control over them, despair about life, themselves and the future. They may feel worthless, inadequate and guilty. Even if, after a while, opportunities arise that can help conditions change and solve their problems, they may find it difficult to seize this opportunity due to their thoughts and feelings that they have failed in their past experiences.

It is possible to catch many examples of learned helplessness from our daily lives. The thought of someone who can’t get the grade they want or complete their project, ‘I will never be able to do this’, may extend to the belief that they will fail in the next exam, that they will never get over it, and that they are incompetent. Therefore, even if he has an opportunity to take an exam on another unit or subject of the same course that may be of interest to him, with a different learning method, with the chance to get support from a source where he can complete his deficiencies, and to get the grade he wants in the study order that suits him, he may find it difficult to take advantage of this opportunity. . Therefore, our negative thoughts and expectations about the consequences of our past experiences cause us to ignore changing conditions and opportunities. By ignoring our talents and the skills we can develop, we become discouraged by the helplessness we have learned. Maybe we’ll eventually create one of the self-fulfilling prophecies.

The concept of learned helplessness is not unique to humans. In fact, the story of the emergence of this concept begins with experiments on animals. In the 1960s, Martin Seligman, with his animal experiments, revealed how expectations affect behavior and the role of expectation on behavior with the concept of learned helplessness. In a laboratory working with dogs, dogs were subjected to a mild electric shock after a sound. Therefore, dogs were conditioned to this tone by fear and escape behavior. In the second step of the experiment, the dogs are enclosed in a large box consisting of two sections separated by a low barrier. While electric shock was given to the section they were in, electric shock was not given to the other section. If the shocked dog jumped to the section where the shock was not given, it would be freed from the shock. That is, the dogs were expected to recover from the electric shock. In the third part of the experiment, dogs that had previously been conditioned against the sound were expected to escape the shock after the sound by simply jumping to the other part when they heard the sound, without being given an electric shock this time. In this experiment, in which it was measured whether they could transfer their previous learning to another environment, the dogs were stuck in the second part, they could not bypass the barrier and pass to the other part, despite the electric shock to the part they were in.

When Martin Seligman thought about this event, he came to the conclusion that the dogs had learned what they were expected to learn in the experiment, not relief from shock, but desperation. With the electric shock following the sound given in the first step of the experiment, the dogs learned that barking, jumping, running was useless, and that they could not escape from the electric shock. In his next experiment, Seligman worked with dogs divided into three groups to test this concept of learned helplessness. The first group of dogs was set up with a mechanism by which they could escape from the given electric shock when they touched a panel with their noses. So the dogs could control the situation with what they did. The second group of dogs was given an electric shock, but a mechanism was established that they could not escape from this shock no matter what they did. The electric shock given to the dogs in this group was not under their control. However, when the dogs in the first group touched the panel with their noses, the dogs in the second group were cut off from the electric shock. The dogs in the third group were control group dogs and were not given an electric shock. Therefore, the first group learned that they could control the negative event they encountered, the second group learned that they had no control, that is, helplessness, and the third group learned nothing.

In the second step of the experiment, dogs exposed to electric shocks reacted differently when they were placed back in boxes consisting of a low barrier and two compartments. The first group learned that he could control and escape, soon jumped over the barriers to the other section and recovered from the shock. The dogs in the third group, who had not been given any electric shock, learned to get rid of the shock by jumping to the other section, although the time took a little longer. However, the dogs in the second group, who learned that they had no control and were helpless, did not run away and remained where they were. So what they learned was a sense of helplessness. Their past learning had taught them that they could not cope with this situation.

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered by Martin Seligman’s experiment on animals. Looking at our previous defeats and failures, when we keep thinking ‘I can’t succeed anyway, it’s not under my control’, we actually condemn ourselves to the point where we are, without being able to take advantage of the opportunities that come our way. Instead of the helplessness we learned, we can learn to seize opportunities, to trust our abilities, to find new ways.

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