Learned Helplessness in the Workplace

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Learned Helplessness in the Workplace
Psychology 320
November 22, 2010
Professor: Sprinkle


In the late 1960’s and early 1970s Mr. Martin Seligman began to study what effects surroundings have on not only animals, but human beings. His studies were an attempt to determine what ramifications outside influences could have on a live beings motivation and drive for success. He started his studies by giving rats electric shocks. They were inadvertent and without cause, and this was so the rats had no way of reasoning what could cause or prevent the shocks, and how to avoid them. What he found, was that eventually the rats would give up on trying to avoid or escape the shocks. Seligman eventually applied these studies to human infants and what he discovered was a theory he deemed, “Learned Helplessness.”

Learned Helplessness in the Workplace
When Martin Seligman chose to study human infants and the effects of outside influences, he wanted to determine whether a lack of control over one’s surroundings could lead to a lack in motivation. What he found was that just like the rats, humans would learn helplessness, and hence the reason his theory is known as the Learned Helplessness Theory. In short, the theory states that with no control over one’s surroundings, the response will be helplessness. He also found that those who learn this will have an interference with the rest of their development. They may have emotional problems along with anxiety and depression as adults.

One of the ways that Seligman believed children learned helplessness was if there was no correlation between actions and there outcome. Just like the rats who tried to escape but where still punished with shocks, they felt that no matter what they did the outcome would be the same. Children who had parents with poor parenting skills or who didn’t recognize their successes, learned that no matter what they did, it didn’t change the outcome. Kids who struggled in school may begin to fail repeatedly as they would feel that even if they did try, they would fail. People who have learned helplessness suffer from low self-esteem, and tend to blame themselves for everything

While studying learned helplessness in humans, Seligman found that it also can be associated with different ways of thinking about the events that form person's "explanatory style." Seligman believed there were three major components of explanatory style associated with learned helplessness. He termed those as permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Permanence pertained to the idea that no matter what happens or the events leading up to them, the outcomes were in fact permanent. Pervasiveness referred to the thought that if something negative happened in one situation it would happen in other situations as well. For instance if a person struggles with math, they then assume they are stupid and struggle in every aspect. Personalization, the third and final component of explanatory style, refers to whether one will attribute negative events to their own flaws or to outside circumstances or other people. Most people with Learned Helplessness will attribute everything to their own flaws or shortcomings.

Seligman believes in order to help a person overcome Learned Helplessness; they must strive to Learn Optimism. He believes parents and others who celebrate young kid’s mastery of new subjects can lead to optimism as well as their own attitudes toward life.

In my own position as a business owner, I believe I have employed a young woman and possibly a few others with who had learned helplessness. There is one young woman in particular who seemed to struggle with the struggles Seligman outlined in his theory. I felt a daily battle in trying to convince her she could change her life and the outcomes of the events in her life if she became motivated.

When I bought my health club Cassie was the young...
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