The Elephant Syndrome: Learned Helplessness

elephantThe concept of learned helplessness should resonate clearly for most of you because the evidence of its existence is so easily seen in most any organization or home environment. Helplessness is any condition where a desired escape or change is impossible. When we speak of learned helplessness, we are referring to a state in which a person perceives (incorrectly) that there are no opportunities for escape or means by which they can effect a change.

Most of you have probably seen television documentaries or read stories about how elephant trainers control their huge wild animals in captivity. A full-grown male African Elephant can measure 7 ½ meters in length and weigh 6 tons or more. But a baby elephant is quite manageable in size and strength and is easily restrained to a small area with one end of a chain fastened to its leg and the other to a good sized tree. The elephant soon learns that escape is impossible. However, this inescapable condition is soon outgrown. The questions then becomes, why doesn’t the animal escape? Because it has over-learned that the specific act of escape from the restraint is impossible. Not only this, but the animal submits to the overall authority of its master because its submission to the restraint is generalized to other areas. This intelligent animal learns at an early age that it must submit to the will of its master. It is quite amazing to see these mammoth giants being guided around by a puny rope or ridden like a pony on steroids. But this is only possible because of the conditioning that the animal experienced early in its life. In essence, the elephant has learned that it is helpless, that it can not escape and that it must submit to the will of its master.

Dr. Martin Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, I is widely accepted as the father of learned helplessness. His work on learned helplessness began in the animal laboratory of Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 1960’s. Solomon was studying what is called avoidance behavior. Avoidance behaviors are established when subjects learn that a warning stimulus or signal (in this case a light) is followed by an averse stimulus (in this case a mild shock). These researchers were studying the ability of dogs to learn the warning stimulus and avoid the averse stimulus. In essence, they were conditioning (training) dogs to expect a shock if they did not react appropriately to a warning light.

What they found was that dogs could and would act (be motivated) by their own expectations that an averse stimulus (shock) would result if they did not act. However, these results were logically problematic for the researchers to explain. If what they were seeing was simply a tendency to be motivated by the absence of a shock, then wouldn’t these animals be equally as motivated to engage in all behaviors (eating, grooming, barking and pooping) that were not followed by shocks? This mystery led to further experimentation in order to determine the conditions under which dogs would develop such expectations. Clearly, eating and other normal animal behaviors were not motivated by a desire to avoid any clear averse stimuli.

In 1967, Overmier and Seligman first began a set of experiments designed to discover what conditions were required for the development of this avoidance behavior. Dogs experienced one of two laboratory conditions. The animals were first treated with either escapable shocks ( shocks that could be terminated by a response) or inescapable shocks. These same dogs were then tested in a different apparatus (a different setting with a different averse stimulus). What they found was that the animals that had received the escapable shocks first learned normally in later conditions. However, animals that had initially received the same shocks but under inescapable conditions failed to learn later. In addition, future studies showed that an experience of escapable shock “immunized” the animals so that a later exposure to inescapable shock was without effect on later learning. Overmier and Seligman had made an important discovery, but they had yet to come up with a viable explanation for this behavioral phenomenon.

Although there were many well developed theories that offered insights into the behavioral contingency that Seligman and Overmier had discovered, none of them explained the phenomenon adequately. The researchers knew that the animals that experienced inescapable shocks were learning that their responses to the shock and the termination of the shock condition were independent of one another. The realization that these two factors (shock and escape response) were independent of one another meant that, like the giant elephants, the dogs did not expect that any attempt to escape would succeed. Given this learned condition, the animals’ escape response discontinued and they lay passively while receiving the mild shocks. This phenomenon became known as learned helplessness.

The findings of this animal research apply reasonably to our experience as humans. We know that initial failures (like an inability to escape shocks) can have a powerful influence over our belief that further efforts will result in different (and better) results.  Seligman and others went on to perform experiments with humans. What they found was that the same consequences appeared in people with animals, but the effects of helplessness were moderated by the person’s ability to rationalize what was happening. Since animals have limited rational capabilities, it stood to reason that human would react to the induction of helplessness conditions differentially, depending upon how they perceived the circumstances.

Seligman explained that learning helplessness in humans is modified by their explanatory style.  A person’s explanatory style is what influences their “self-talk” or their explanations for what they experience (the causes of our successes and failures, escape or inability to escape). Seligman found that people with optimistic explanatory style were far more resilient toward conditions of learned helplessness. Unfortunately, not every person has an optimistic explanatory style.

Do you see learned helplessness happening in your workplace?  What would you look for to identify these people? I’ll follow-up this post with answers to the questions: 1) what does learned helplessness look like and 2) how can I help someone who seems to be experience it?  Here is a link to the next post!


One thought on “The Elephant Syndrome: Learned Helplessness

  1. Everyone who works under a control-and-command manager shows signs of learned helplessness. For me, LH is installed by relationships with others. The answer lies in the work by Eric Berne and Stephen Karpman on Transactional Analysis.

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