Learned helplessness: How depression keeps you depressed

Classical Conditioning, Comparative, Deception, Depression

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

Learned helplessness, the term just sounds awful. Unfortunately, the actual effects don’t prove to be any better. It’s a crappy part of the human condition, and if you look for it, you’ll most likely notice it a lot more than you may have first suspected. I just sat down to drink a delicious bottomless cup of coffee at my favorite local coffee house. As I stood in line to buy it, I watched two young guys in front of me struggle to figure out what they wanted to order.

My Experience 5 Minutes Ago

First world problems, right? Anyway, I watched the less confident of the two stare obliviously at the menu until it looked like his eyes may just drop out and roll down the laminated paper until they bounced off his shoes. As his friend finished ordering, a frantic look started growing across his overly-normal white guy face.

He jetted his gaze back toward me and I saw terror in his eyes. I’m not kidding, the dude just couldn’t make up his mind. So what did he do? As I stared at him and gestured him to order before me, he finally let out a big sigh and ordered the exact same thing his friend just had. Now, I’m not talking about just the same coffee. I’m talking about a mocha-locha-whatever coffee with an apple and cheddar sandwich and a special mac and cheese on the side.

“Now what in the world does all this have to do with learned helplessness and depression?” I can already hear you scathing below your breath after drudging through my coffee story. Well, it displays the concept of learned helplessness in its simplest form. When you experience a repeated aversive stimulus, you start to realize a depressive sense of lack of control. This young guy had kept ping-ponging menu options around in his head, unable to completely agree on one, until he gave in and just ordered what his friend had.

Learned Helplessness: The Research

The idea of learned helplessness as a theory began in 1967 when Martin Seligman looked to expand on the concept of classical conditioning. He wanted to see what conditioning would look like opposite of Pavlov giving his dogs food after he rang a bell. Instead, he thought something like “What if I take dogs and put them in harnesses, keeping them from escape, and then shocking them as I ring a bell.” Yeah, I know, sometimes research can be rough to look at. This is one of those cases.

So he did just that. He took dogs and put them into 3 groups. Group 1 pups were put in a harness for some time and released. Group 2 canines were given shocks at different times, but could stop the pain by pressing a lever. Lastly Group 3 got shocks similar to Group 2, only they couldn’t do anything to stop it. They just had to sit there, harnessed, getting electrocuted.

After this, they put the same 3 dog groups in a “shuttle-box”. Imagine a box where one side shocks the dog, but if they jump over a low partition, they can escape getting shocked. Do you have the mental image? Good. So what do you think happened?

Well, the dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned the trick and jumped over the partition to avoid shock. However, most of the dogs in Group 3 laid down and whined while they were shocked. Brutal, right? I know.

So What Does This Tell us About Depression?

Since Seligman’s time with his dogs in the 60’s, we’ve learned a lot. As with all concepts, ideas, and theories, we’ve expanded our knowledge on the subject. Research has went on to associate this idea of learned helplessness with depression. It’s now a huge theory in studying major depression and is know as learned helplessness theory. Depressed people deal with feelings of being helpless and out of control constantly. It’s a rough side effect of the symptom, and one that you can see compounds on itself the more you give into its thinking.

If you don’t struggle with depression, you may often find yourself wondering why people don’t just pick theirselves up by their bootstraps and go out and get it. Unfortunately, some people have a lot harder time doing this than their counterparts. Will is a tricky thing, and willing yourself past your natural tendencies is nearly impossible when you’re depressed. Pulling yourself out of depression is a tough climb, and one a lot of people can’t make. The reason? Learned helplessness.

Applying LH to Your Life

Even if you aren’t depressed you may find yourself falling victim to learned helplessness. Do you vote, or have you merely given into deciding the entire system is fraud and pointless? Did you go to college and drop out after getting F’s and blaming everyone but yourself? Don’t worry, me too. After I dropped out multiple times blaming teachers, classes, life, etc., I realized everyone wasn’t out conspiring against me learning. I had all these false, pessimistic ideas, when in reality people usually wanted to help.

Thinking about some of your learned helplessness tendencies and changing your mindset to have a more optimistic outlook will vastly improve your thinking and your life.


  1. Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367.

About Eric

I am the founder, designer, coder, writer, and jack-of-all-trades here at PsychMob. Living in beautiful Colorado, I spend most of my spare time hiking, meditating, and altering my consciousness. I'm relentlessly in love with psychology and pull no punches when I write about it. I hope you enjoy the site as much as I do! Thanks for coming.

Categories:  Classical Conditioning / Comparative / Deception / Depression


2 responses to “Learned helplessness: How depression keeps you depressed”

  1. Julia says:

    Good reading, Eric, about learned helplessness.