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Learned helplessness: definition, characteristics and consequences

indefension aprendida que es

The learned helplessness is a psychological bias that sucede when a person is exposed to a situation aversiva that infringe some type of damage already was physical or psychological but without capacity to avoid it. This inability to go out or the fault of resources to face this type of harmful experience finishes for generating some passivity in front of the fact occurred and a perception in the person of fault of possible defence that finishes for assimilating this belief like the only possibility losing little by little all answer of afrontamiento to the problem.

This psychological phenomenon is of vital importance for our lives since it sees  reflected in a lot of types of personal problems related largely by the big affectation to the self-esteem that produces this situation, generating situations of anxiety and depression in the people that suffer it.

In a first moment, can think that it is difficult to be victims of learned helplessness, but is a process that of learning that internalises and that needs of a context in which it internalises  this impossibility of exit weigh have it tried everything of some form previously. That is to say, it does not fall  at first in the indefensión but it is fruit of attempts of afrontamiento no fruitful.

Like this it discovered  the learned helplessness: first study

Overmier And Seligman (1967) were the discoverers of this psychological phenomenon in an experiment with dogs to which subjected to two dogs to electrical downloads. The first of them could avoid the download pressing a crowbar whereas the second could not escape of the download, by a lot of that tried it with other methods.

Later, it put to the two dogs in a situation under the same conditions and observed that whereas the first knew that it could escape because previously it had experienced it attained to go out of the electrical cheat jumping to the safe zone, the second dog opted for remaining in the same situation without doing at all neither try avoid the downloads. It had generated a learning of indefensión in front of an external stimulus.

Characteristics of the learned helplessness

Later to the initial study before appointed of Seligman, this important psychologist follow studying the phenomenon and checked his effects on the humans, reinforced besides by the theory of the attribution, whereby him indefensión will be greater in function of the style atributivo of each person in relation to the causes atribuibles to the no contingency.

The internal attribution, stable and global of the causes that generate the unrest create greater indefensión learnt and affect more to the self-esteem that if they attribute  to external causes, unstable and specific. Therefore, if the failures attribute  to stable internal factors and the successes to situational external factors this person will be more easily victim of school failures, labour, familiar, etc., because of this indefensión learnt and irrational beliefs created.

Example of indefensión learnt by bad attribution in the world of the sport: “I am not able to mark a goal because I do not have sufficient talent, the goal that marked the other day went of luck because the goalkeeper was bad”.  Deficits generated

Three are the big deficits that Seligman found in the individuals that generated learned helplessness:

  • Motivational: delay in the start of voluntary answers.
  • Cognitive: difficulty to learn later an answer controlled when previously it has not been controlled.
  • Emotional: they produce disorders conductuales and physiological typical of the anxiety, stress, fear, blockade and back depression.

Related with these deficits find  other general symptoms as they are:

  • Lower competitiveness and aggressiveness in front of other similar situations: generalisation.
  • False thought of defeat and resignation. The person will not attain to assimilate that it will be able to succeed sometime.
  • Passivity. Fault of research of solutions, mind in white and blockades.
  • Distorted thoughts or false justifications and other cognitive biases, like the bias of confirmation (give credibility to the information that confirm the belief established like some).
  • State of negative spirit. It will produce some transfer to a feeling of pessimism and negativity in front of the life in general. Linked obviously to a low self-esteem.
  • Emotional problems. Fault of empathy, automotivación and emotional self-supervision that can reduce the emotional intelligence of the person.

How it affects us the learned helplessness ?

This attitude of resignation in front of a situation incontrolable can find it in a lot of fields of our life and all are vulnerable, in minor or greater proportion, to be victims of learned helplessness:

  • Violence of gender or in the familiar field. When a person suffers violence inside his own house, tries to go out of her but does not achieve it finishes for creating a passive personality on and holding the violence as if it was the only form to live. Unfortunately, the victims of violence of gender are very liable to generate learned helplessness.
  • Bullying Or school bullying. Every time they are more the students that suffer school bullying and that feel incomprendidos so much by his own mates, friends or even professors and tend to leave  carry by her, what reduces paulatinamente his self-esteem.
  • Burnout Or labour bullying. Similar to the case of the school bullying, in occasions consents situations of labour maltreatment by not being able to go out or reconducir his labour life of another form.
  • Problems in the field of the sport. When a player fails constantly in his attempts for making an exercise or sportive aim (mark goals), is easily sensitive to generate some learned helplessness on the activity that reduces his performance.
  • Deficit in the resolution of problems and general learning. It generates problems in the studies or in the personal or labour projects that finish for giving by impossible.
  • Mental disorders and thrilled. They exist a lot of mental disorders related with this type of irrational learning, from problems of depression, anxiety or disorders of the personality or alimentary disorders. The not attaining go out of a problem like the depression, in spite of the attempts, generates a loop in the person that even finishes for frustrating creating therefore this learned helplessness with which will coexist conjoint with his mental illness.
  • Problems of addictions. When it generates a dependency on a substance or behaviour and this need establishes  so inside the person that generates him already unrest but to his time his attempts to go out of her are innocuous finishes  also for generating learned helplessness, that will hamper even more the treatment for the detoxication.
  • Political psychology and persuasion. Some political messages may seek to generate a feeling of helplessness to better manipulate their audience by generating false beliefs about a certain fact; This aims to create an emotional block that will only be released by the person who sends the message, in search of those votes or change of ideology. Therefore, it can be used in propaganda and publicity.
  • Situations of “voluntary” or involuntary running of the bulls. Others of the cases in which it generates learned helplessness is situations of running of the bulls such like centres penitenciarios or even residences of elderly, when we see limited our capacity to take decisions or put measures to improve our vivencia. Largely, this also lives  in surroundings of confinement, as the one who have lived with the current pandemia of the coronavirus.


Overmier, J.B., Seligman, M.And.P. (1967). Effects of inescapable Shock upon subsequent leakage and avoid-dance responding. Journal Of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63,1, 28-33

Iván Pico

Director y creador de Psicólogo Colegiado G-5480 entre otras cosas. Diplomado en Ciencias Empresariales y Máster en Orientación Profesional. Máster en Psicología del Trabajo y Organizaciones. Posgrado en Psicología del Deporte entre otras cosas. Visita la sección "Sobre mí" para saber más. ¿Quieres una consulta personalizada? ¡Escríbeme!

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