Learned Helplessness
A number of psychologists have speculated about the role of helplessness and hopelessness in depression, but Martin Seligman formulated the learned helplessness theory of depression. The concept of learned helplessness evolved out of a series of experiments with dogs on the effects of prior Pavlovian conditioning on later learning. Dogs subjected to inescapable shock later demonstrated a failure to initiate voluntary attempts to escape. The theory was tested with humans, and it was postulated that depressed persons believe they have little control over important outcomes in their lives and, thus, do not attempt to exercise control. Learned helplessness theory contends that the basic cause of all the deficits observed in helpless animals and humans after uncontrollable events occur is the expectation that in the future they will not be able to control outcomes.
This theory of depression has affected psychotherapeutic treatment of women, since women are more frequently diagnosed as depressed than men and since this theory has influenced treatment approaches for depression. The learned helplessness theory recognizes the importance of a sense of powerlessness and its possible impact on mood, and it also concedes that helplessness can be learned in response to certain environmental contingencies. However, the "problem" of learned helplessness is still viewed as residing within the individual, and, by implication, the solution lies in treating the individual.
Theorists make several recommendations for therapeutic interventions based on the learned helplessness theory. For instance, therapeutic strategies that undermine the expectation that goals are uncontrollable and unattainable should be effective in reversing the depressive feelings (Beach, Abramson, and Levine). A number of specific strategies have been presented: reversing an individual's expectations of no control; facilitating a change from unrealistic to more realistic goals; decreasing the importance of unattainable goals; and reversing an individual's expectations that other people have control over his or her goals. Basically, if the cause of learned helplessness and depression is hypothesized to be the expectation that responding will be ineffective in controlling future events, then the basic therapeutic effort should be to change this belief to one in which the individual believes that responding will be effective and that anticipated bad events will be avoided. The focus of these treatment models is thus on altering the depressed individual's expectations or goals.
What is missing from these perspectives, however, is a recognition of the individual's circumstances. For women and other disfranchised persons, ignoring these circumstances can be tantamount to prescribing acceptance of limited control or institutionalized powerlessness. For example, if a single mother of three children reports depression and a sense of helplessness, her depression may be the result of a realistic sense of powerlessness resulting from, for instance, limited occupational opportunities and inadequate facilities for child care. To attempt to modify her expectations or goals without recognizing the actual limitations under which she is operating may lead to a minimization of the difficulties she is facing. That is, treatments derived from the learned helplessness theory of depression focus on the expectations or beliefs of the individual, for the most part, ignoring situational factors.
If the learned helplessness model recognizes that environmental contingencies can influence one's beliefs about future expectations, it seems appropriate to also understand that these contingencies may be stable elements of an individual's circumstances and thus may have a pervasive influence on an individual's outlook. An individual's attributions that outcomes are stable may not be an indication of a cognitive aberration but rather may be an accurate appraisal of his or her circumstances. It is essential that mental health professionals recognize and take into consideration the multiplicity of factors that may be contributing to an individual's distress.
The learned helplessness theory has made some valuable contributions toward the understanding of depression: it explains some of the beliefs and behaviors of depressed persons and even provides experimental evidence as to how beliefs about helplessness are acquired. In this respect it furthers our recognition of factors that may contribute to depression in women. However, it is important, especially when women and disfranchised persons are being treated, not to neglect the role that situational factors may play in supporting a sense of helplessness.
L.Y. Abramson, M.E.P. Seligman, and J.D. Teasdale, "Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation," Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87 (1987): 40-74; S.R.H Beach, L.Y. Abramson, and F.M. Levine, "Attributional Reformulation of Learned Helplessness and Depression: Therapeutic Implications," in J.F. Clarkin and H.I. Glazier (eds.), Depression: Behavioral and Directive Intervention Strategies (New York, 1981).
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name. "Learned Helplessness." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. today's date <http://www.gem.greenwood.com>