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How big a role does learned helplessness and conditioning play in your learning difficulties?

Do you ever look at the things some people create or do in awe and amazement?

You don't have a clue how they do it, you just know in your mind that it is something you personally could never achieve?

Secretly you might wish you could be that clever or that talented yet still you seem to be sure you could never do the same.

Or could you?

What if you could?

What if you actually could?

Stay tuned. What I'm going to share with you today may change your capabilities forever.

*****Ruth Zannis Hidden Secrets of Learning podcast S01E10 Learning and the perception of difficulty (Transcript below)*****

Today's episode is called Learning and the perception of difficulty. We will be looking at the psychology behind the perception of difficulty and why so many of us give up or announce defeat before we even give something a go. If that's something you've ever done, then this is the episode you need to listen to. (Click here to listen to full episode)

Years ago while in university in Paris, we were each called upon to present a motto we go by. Mine was « si on veut, on peut » (if you want to, you can). You see, I'm the type of person if you tell me something is impossible, I'll turn around and reply « Well, I'll show you it's possible ».

Ever since I was little.

Perhaps I'm just a bit headstrong or stubborn, but to be honest, I cannot bear watching people hold themselves back because of something they think is difficult rather than actually is difficult.

Basically what I call a perceived difficulty.

Having lived and worked in several different cultures and countries, I have had numerous occasions to observe the different ways people react to achievement.

So let's say I do something good... ok, something really good:

In England, the reaction is « That's really good »

In America they'd say « That's fantastic! How do you do that? »

In Asia people tell me « 你好棒 你好聪明! » « You're really intelligent you're really clever»

And in France I most often get « Dis donc c'est génial mais moi je suis nul en... » (that's great, but me I'm really useless at...).

Now if I try to counteract this latter remark, explaining that whatever I've done is not that difficult, I'm invariably faced with « oui, mais c'est parce que vous êtes douée » (Yes, but that's because you're gifted, because you're clever).

This phenomena, where everything is a question of being nul or douée (useless or gifted) is very common in France. And I spent many years asking myself why this is so and what can help people to get past it. Until one day I found my answer.

During a class in university. And a topic noone else wanted to write a paper on.

It all came down to one single word:


So tell me, what image jumps into your mind when you here the word helpless?


In fact what does helpless even mean?

Non-native speakers quite logically explain it as « without help », building the meaning on word constructions such as we do for words like worthless, hopeless, motherless and mindless, but come back to the above question, what does this word invoke in your mind?

For me, I imagine a baby and its inability to do anything for itself.

And in this way, helplessness describes an incapacity to help oneself.

However, in talking about incapacity, does incapability come into play too? Are we talking about the same thing or about two separate things?

For example, when we tell our child, or our friend « Grow up a bit! Stop acting like a baby! » are we not rather telling them that in spite of their present behaviour, we fully know they are capable of doing what is in question?

Studies into helplessness and capacity to learn

In the 80s, a study by Dweck and Diener A social cognitive approach to Motivation and Personality was carried out on late-grade school children looking at the question of helplessness and their capacity to learn. These were divided into two groups: each demonstrating either a more helpless or a more mastery-oriented pattern, the helpless group characterized by an avoidance of challenge and a deterioration of performance in the face of obstacles, and the mastery-oriented group seeking out challenging tasks and maintaining effective striving even under failure. The purpose of the study was to observe the changes in cognition, affect, and behaviour as the helpless and mastery oriented subjects experienced first success and then failure.

What were the results?

In the first series of success related tests, to quote the study directly, « There was no difference in the strategy level attained by the helpless and mastery-oriented children on the success problems...Indeed, whenever any difference emerged, it was the helpless children who appeared slightly more proficient. » So note, helpless by no means carries the idea of being incapable or less capable than others.

Helplessness is that feeling of being totally (or almost totally) powerless in a given situation. It's the conviction that whatever effort is put in, the result will always be negative. In effect, helplessness considers the response to a negative situation and the result as being two completely separate and independent things. In this light, where does helplessness come from and can it be learned?

History of the theory of learned helplessness

The theory of learned helplessness dates back to 1965 and the experiments carried out by Martin E.P. Seligman and his colleagues. Following in the footsteps of Pavlov who did what's known as the salivating dog experiments, they decided to test the effect of electric shocks on dogs. The results were far from what they were expecting, and pretty much turned the behaviourist theories of that time upside-down.

Behaviourism having been developed by Skinner and his experiments on conditioning where dogs learned a specific behaviour following a positive reinforcement or reward. (For more information on Pavlov's work on conditioning compared to Skinner's work, check out this great article by Kendra Cherry). Here in Seligman's experiments he witnessed the opposite to be true. In his experiment, there were three groups of dogs. In the first round, while harnessed, two groups were given electric shocks, one of which having no possibility of stopping them. The third group underwent nothing. In the second round, the same groups of dogs were all given electric shocks, and each one had the possibility to escape. They all escaped...except for the group which had undergone the uncontrollable electric shocks in the first round. They didn't move – and continued sitting throughout the electric shocks. Without the slightest reward or positive reinforcement, they had learned: learned helplessness.

Experiments on humans gave similar results (Abramson, Seligman & Teasdale, 1978) with a loud noise serving as averse stimuli, the experiment was carried out in the following way: in the first part, there were three groups of people. Each had a button in front of them. The first group could control the noise by pushing the button four times so it stopped. The second group couldn't control the noise, it stopped independently of them pushing the button or not. The third group heard no noise. In the second part, each group was tested using a hand shuttle box, and each participant had the possibility to control the noise by simply moving the lever from one side of the box to the other. What was the result? The study notes : « The group receiving prior controllable noise as well as the group receiving no noise readily learned to shuttle, but the typical subject in the group receiving prior uncontrollable noise failed to escape and listened passively to the noise. »

With this experiment and others too, we can see that helplessness is indeed learned. Now taking into consideration the structure of the experiment and its resemblance to those of Skinner, it would be logical to deduce that conditioning was taking place. But is this truly the case?

In another study by Dweck and associates (1975 et 1973), a comparison was made of different effects of attribution for failure : lack of ability and lack of effort. The subjects were pupils in the equivalent of their first or second year of primary school. At one time or other, they had all experienced failure, and the attribution they gave for this varied from boys to girls : Girls attributed their failure to lack of ability while boys attributed their failure to lack of effort or bad behaviour. Tied in with the idea of conditioning, the attribution girls assigned to their failure was « consonant with their teachers' natural classroom criticisms of girls » with the same being the case for the boys. The teacher tended to criticise the girls for their lack of ability and the boys for their lack of effort or bad behaviour.

Does conditioning play a role in learned helplessness?

The role of conditioning in learned helplessness is not negligible, but does that make it a key player? It is true that some people who have experienced trauma, a difficult childhood, frequent criticism, or similar, are at greater risk of learned helplessness. In this context, again it can be assumed that conditioning is at play. However, it is impossible to generalise. Each person is unique. Some people fight, while others submit.

This was brought out in the second half of Seligman's later experiment on teaching dogs avoidance behaviour (in 1974 and 1975). The first two parts of the experiment resembled Seligman's 1965 experiment with the electric shocks. Note what was observed in the second part of the experiment and I quote directly: « Between the years 1965 and 1969 the behavior of about 150 dogs that received prior inescapable shock was studied. Of these, two thirds (about 100) did not learn to escape and went through the striking sequence of behaviors that we described. The other one third seemed completely normal. » Of interest here is that despite having received uncontrollable shock, two thirds did not escape and not 100%.

This means that one third did escape.

What counts in learned helplessness is not the aversion that provoked it, be it conditioning or not, but rather the perception of the uncontrollability. As was reported, « Seeing uncontrollability as the key factor in learned helplessness, equally implies that the aversive aspect of the stimuli presented is not, in itself, a determinative factor in helplessness. »

The powerful role of perception in learned helplessness

This perception can be broken down into six different attributional factors. The attribution an individual gives the absence of control can have an influence on the effect learned helplessness will have in future situations.

The six attributions are classified in three groups of two, as follows :

• global / specific

• stable / unstable

• internal / external

The first attribution of each group (global, stable and internal) are all indicators of a helplessness which will have greater influence over future situations. The second attributional cause (specific, unstable and external) are likely to be less influential.

Time to test your perception!

So what I'm going to give you now is a short quiz to illustrate this more clearly, so follow along:

Global / specific

Example : an individual eats an Indian dish and gets sick.

Global attribution : Indian food (in general) makes me sick.

Specific attribution : This dish made me sick.

A. Which attribution (global or specific) leaves the individual more freedom to eat Indian food again in the future?

B. Which attribution (global or specific) makes it more likely that the subject will have difficulty trying unfamiliar dishes in the future?

Stable / unstable

Example : an individual feels his interview went badly.

Stable attribution : I always say the wrong thing in interviews.

Unstable attribution : I didn't find out enough on the company first.

C. Which attribution (stable or unstable) indicates that the person sees all their interviews in the same light?

D. Which attribution (stable or unstable) indicates that the person only has this interview in mind?

Internal / external

Example : A boy rejects his girlfriend. How will she react?

Internal attribution : I'm just not pretty enough for him!

External attribution : He just got an eye for women.

E. Which attribution (internal or external) shows that the girl sees things a bit more realistically?

F. Which attribution (internal or external) shows that the girl is blaming herself?

(Answers below...)


The long term effect of learned helplessness depends primarily on the attributions it is given and not on the conditioning. If left untreated, it can lead to depression and in turn have a negative impact on motivation.

Coming back to my opening words, associating helplessness with the idea of a helpless baby is perhaps not that accurate. We should rather envision a school-age child in the middle of a large department store, crying his eyes out because he can't find his mother. He is capable of finding his mother, but in this situation, his emotions (fear and anxiety) have overridden his cognitive power. In my experience, emotion plays a key role in the choice of global, stable and internal attributions, while cognition chooses specific, unstable and external attributions.

And the same is true at adult age. When facing challenges, do we persist in perceiving ourselves as incapable or do we override that with our deep desire to learn and achieve more and better?

Do we let our cognitive powers take the lead or do we let fear, anxiety and past experience of failure (negative emotions) take control and hold us back?

Will you be one of the 60% who submitted or the 30% who overrode that and pushed forward?

What's your secret to pushing past your learning difficulties?

Let's talk in comments below

(Answers : A) Specific; B) Global; C) Stable; D) Unstable; E) External; F) Internal)


Abramson, L.Y., Seligman, M.E.P. & Teasdale, J.D. (1978). Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation - Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1978, Vol. 87, No. 1, 49-74

Dweck, C.S. & Leggett, E.L. (1988). A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality - Psychological Review 1988, Vol. 95, No. 2, 256-273

Dweck, C.S. (1975). Role of expectations and attributions in alleviation of learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31 (4): 674-685

Dweck, C. S., & Reppucci, N. D. (1973). Learned helplessness and reinforcement responsibility in children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25(1), 109-116.

Fenouillet, F. (2003). La Motivation – Dunod

Maier, S.F. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1976). Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence - Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1976, Vol. 105, No. 1, 3-46

Overmier, J. B., & Seligman, M. E. (1967). Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 63(1), 28.

Skinner, B.F. (2005). Science and Human Behaviour – The B.F. Skinner Foundation.


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