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Helplessness and Depression
The concept of learned helplessness is most strongly identified with psychologist Martin Seligman. Early animal experimentation by Seligman and colleagues defined the phenomenon of learned helplessness (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). The concept of learned helplessness describes the phenomenon that occurs when an animal or person observes or experiences traumatic events that they can exert little influence or control over. When the animal or person discovers that it can do nothing to escape or affect such an event it may acquire learned helplessness and not attempt to even try to remove itself from potentially harmful situations. In behavioral terms the organism learns that reinforcement and behavior are not contingent on one another (Seligman, 1976). The organism essentially becomes conditioned to form a belief that nothing it can do can affect the situation and it simply "gives up."
The original learned helplessness experiments had dogs learning through classical conditioning to jump over a barrier when a tone was presented to them. This was achieved by presenting the tone (the conditioned stimulus) and then exposing the dogs to an intense but physically harmless electrical shock (the unconditioned stimulus). Dogs quickly learn to jump over the barrier when the tome is presented in this paradigm (Overmier & Seligman, 1967).
In the second phase of the experiment a dog was placed in a restraining device so it could not move and then given the series of shocks. When the second dog was put into the same conditions as the first (allowed to jump over a barrier to escape the shock) it never learned to cross the barrier to avoid this shock and instead lay passively crying until the tone in shock ended. This learned helplessness affect has been demonstrated in other animals such as rats (Seligman & Beekley, 1975) and even human beings (Hiroto & Seligman, 1975).
While the majority of initial research regarding learned helplessness was performed with animals as the subjects, later research demonstrated that the learned helplessness paradigm does indeed apply to humans under some specific circumstances. One aspect of learned helplessness that does not appear to occur in animals is the process of acquiring learned helplessness through vicarious learning (e.g., Bandura, 1986).
There are some other differences in the animal models of learned helplessness and models developed using human participants. Due to ethical concerns electoral shocks cannot be used so early research on learned helplessness in humans used the ability to be able to escape or avoid a loud noise as the noxious event. Participants were given solvable or unsolvable problems to work on and then were exposed to a loud annoying noise. The participants that were given the series of unsolvable problems did not learn to escape the loud noise, thus demonstrating learned helplessness in humans. Other research has also been able to induce learned helplessness in human participants with different types of traumatic or distressing events (e.g., Glass & Singer, 1972; Miller & Seligman, 1976).
Seligman and colleagues have suggested that there are three components to learned helplessness that include an emotional disruption due to the belief that one has no control over unpleasant events, reduced motivation such that the organism becomes passive and gives up, and a cognitive deficit that disrupts the organism's capacity to make a connection between response and reinforcement in similar situations where control may be possible (Seligman, 1976).
Seligman's original idea was that the theory of learned helplessness was one explanation for how depression occurs in individuals. In this model clinical depression represents a type of learned helplessness and is triggered by experiencing severe traumatic -- type events that one's best efforts cannot control or ward off. This leads to the person feeling powerless, hopeless, and depressed (Seligman, 1976). Research has supported this notion. For example, Miller and Seligman (1975) had groups of nondepressed and mildly depressed students perform a series of tasks. One task involved skill and the other task involved chance factors. Prior to performing each task the students were asked to rate their expectation of being successful on the task. On the task that required skill, the nondepressed students adjusted their expectations depending on whether they had succeeded or failed on the preceding problem, whereas on the chance task their expectations showed very little variation. The depressed students also showed little change in expectations during the chance tasks; however, they showed the same pattern of no change in expectations on the skill task. In addition, a group of nondepressed students who had been subjected to an inescapable noxious stimulus situation before performing the skill task behaved like the depressed students demonstrating little variation in their expectations. Thus, the study indicated that nondepressed students who had been subjected to a learned helpless paradigm and naturally occurring depressed students demonstrated the same effect of a reduction in the expectation that one own efforts can influence outcomes. However the potential causes of depression are numerous and Seligman later reformulated this theory such that learned helplessness was a risk factor for developing depression, but not the only means by which depression can develop in people (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978).
Subsequent research has indicated that the original idea of learned helplessness did not explain the varying reactions that people produced to situations that were used to produce learned helplessness and laboratory models (Peterson & Park, 1998). For instance, some people develop learned helplessness type reactions, whereas others did not. Learned helplessness also was often situation specific in people and did not generalize as would be expected if it were stand alone model for depression (Cole & Coyne, 1977; Hiroto & Seligman, 1975; Peterson & Park, 1998). This led to investigating how the interpretation of events or the person's explanatory style interacted with the events themselves in order to lead to developing learned helplessness (Abramson et al., 1978; Peterson & Seligman, 1984). According to this idea the highest at -- risk group to experience depression from learned helplessness would be people with explanatory styles that consistently interpret negative events as being permanent (or stable), pervasive (or global), and personal (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1995; Weiner, 1986).
There are several observations to support the notion that how one tends to interpret events or one's past experience may affect one's potential to develop learned helplessness. If individuals are exposed only briefly to some type of inescapable stress or event learned helplessness is a transitory phenomenon (Seligman & Groves, 1970). However, the research indicates that repeated exposure to stressful conditions may lead to severe emotional reactions and prolonged motivational deficits and cognitive deficits. Moreover, animals reared in laboratory settings who have no natural opportunity to learn to cope with the natural world and the stresses of the natural world are far more apt to display learned helplessness following exposure to unavoidable stressors than are animals raised in natural settings (Seligman & Groves, 1970). When people are tested in the laboratory there have also been different susceptibilities to the learned helplessness syndrome noted. The exact life experiences that make some people more prone to develop learned helplessness are not well understood, but some differences have been demonstrated to be related to the person's attributional style in (Rotter, 1966; Weiner, 1986).
The learned helplessness theory of depression appears to be dependent on the types of attributions people use to explain events in the world. Rotter, Seeman, and Liverant (1962) and Weiner (1986) outlined an attribution theory that includes the dimensions of global/specific, stable/unstable, and internal/external. A global attribution is made when the person believes that the cause of the events is consistent in all situations, whereas a specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of the event is dependent on the context. A stable attribution occurs when the person believes that the cause of the negative of that is consistent across time, whereas an unstable attribution would be one where the cause of an event is specific to one point in time. Internal attributions attribute causes to the person, whereas external attributions attribute causes to situational factors.
Thus, current reformulated theories of learned helplessness include the notion of a person's explanatory style, the characteristic manner that a person uses to explain the events that occur in their life, to clarify and strengthen the learned helplessness paradigm. In one of the early studies attempting to incorporate explanatory style into the learned helplessness paradigm researchers found that explanatory style was indeed an important factor in the development of learned helplessness. Students in an introductory psychology course answered in explanatory -- style questionnaire that indicated what their projected goals for a midterm grade was. The students reported what midterm grade would make them happy or satisfied in what midterm grade would make them unhappy or unsatisfied. Before the midterm exam and following the midterm exam each student also filled in a checklist that assessed the student's mood. Students who received midterm grades that were lower than or equal to the grades they had initially stated would make them unhappy and who used internal, stable, and global…[continue]
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