Learned helplessness and the recession

Helpless dog

Helpless dog (who has not been electrocuted - just in case you were worrying)

In 1967 Martin Seligman conducted some slightly disturbing experiments on dogs. The dogs were exposed to electric shocks that they could not escape because of restraints. Eventually they would give up trying to do anything about their suffering. This lack of response continued even when the restraints were removed and it was possible for them to avoid the pain. The dogs had come to believe that they could do nothing about the shocks, so they didn’t try.

Based on this, and further experiments on animals and humans, Seligman formulated the theory of learned helplessness. In essence, it says that when someone is exposed to an experience in which they feel they have no control or ability to change things, this can lead to an assumption of helplessness which persists even if it subsequently becomes possible to effect a transformation.

Throughout the recession there has been talk about how to help the ‘lost generation‘. However, if learned helplessness is real, then it will require more than just providing opportunities. The recession may have affected the perceptions and attitudes of a generation of job-seekers.

In the original experiments, the helpless dogs could eventually be trained out of their passivity by repeatedly dragging them away from the electric shock until they got the idea. In work with children, some researchers have shown that making stronger links between success/failure and the effort made by the individual (internal attribution rather than external) can improve performance after failure. [Dweck, C.S. The role of expectations and attributions in the alleviation of learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31(4) 1975, 674-685.]

Learned helplessness can be unlearned. But it may require dragging people into a position where they can see that their efforts will make a difference.

  • Are more clients using careers services or fewer?
  • Does this indicate that people have given up on the idea that anything they do can make a difference?
  • Should we be focusing on making a link between individual effort and success?
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  1. #1 by John King on 12 September 2009 - 23:27

    Hi David, think the last part of your blog is missing? I’d be interested to hear it. Your article chimes with David Blanchflower’s research demonstrating that it took 10 years for the cohort affected by the last recession to recover.

    Solutions have (commendably) focused on providing wider access to opportunities. But this is only half the solution. We can’t control the job market (at least, not directly). Instead, we need to teach students how to create and take opportunities – not only job opportunities, but opportunities in general – and motivate them to do so. The passivity and lack of future-orientation we often see in students cannot be due to a lack of interest in the future. More likely, they see little point in pursuing dreams that appear unobtainable or unlikely, and therefore take steps to avoid thinking about a future that is perceived as unpleasant. Many first graduate jobs (though by no means all) are indeed dull, repetitive and undemanding, so students’ perceptions may be accurate, and the head-in-sand reactions are therefore not only understandable but are also a logical reaction to the inputs they are given. Unless we accept students’ views as wholeheartedly held and with a basis in their own realities, we cannot hope to effectively assist the wider student community – ie., the ones that don’t come to see a Careers Adviser – to construct their futures.

    By providing more opportunities, increasing students’ chances of finding work by job seeking help and increase their chances of finding satisfying work by career guidance, we can address the problem.

    By effectively altering attitudes and improving skills, we can solve the problem permanently. Opportunity and possibility surround us, and a temporary blip in the job market hardly dents the range of choice that this years’ graduates have. But changing attitudes and beliefs – as Seligman demonstrates – requires reinforcement and repetition. Attending a single Opportunity Identification workshop may in truth be ineffective (or it may not, we don’t know – we presume it is better than nothing, and claim greater numbers attending as success).

    The next step must be to deliver such reinforcement and repetition within a framework. 3 years in a novel environment and with an openness to change – for example, going to University – is more than enough time. The challenge is working within a framework which values knowledge more than it values skills and attitudes. In the internet age, where knowledge is just a click away, one wonders whether the current balance is the correct one.

    • #2 by David Winter on 14 September 2009 - 17:07

      Thanks for pointing out the missing bit. That’s what happens when you try to be clever and update a post from your mobile!

      As you say, providing opportunities is only half of the solution. The difficult bit is changing a mindset. Reinforcement and repetition is important, but I was also wondering what message we should be repeating. Should we be saying something like ‘If you don’t get the career you want, it’s most likely because you haven’t tried hard enough!’ Are we too nice to say that?

      • #3 by John King on 14 September 2009 - 18:51

        That’s exactly it. It may well be the resilient students who do best – in a recession as much as in other times. How do we increase resilience? Can we provide small waypoints, markers of success which will encourage students to strive harder?

  2. #4 by Hilary on 15 September 2009 - 13:14

    Yes – what creates resilience? Apart from the weird dog experiments (which always sort of puts me off him – those poor pooches, yuk) Seligman does offer some very practical suggestions for changing mindsets. One of the most useful thing I got from his book “Authentic Happiness” was that people who tend to get depressed/discouraged think that an event or mood is a) internal (caused by or specific to them); b) global (has massively far-reaching consequences to them) and c) stable (will be like this forever). People who are more optimistic (and therefore potentially better at generating opportunities for themselves) think that negative events are a) external (the cause is outside themselves), b) specific (is a one-off kind of deal) and c) unstable (will change). Interesting to think how this might apply to, for instance, getting knockbacks on interviews in a difficult economy. So I think the message we should be sending is, “your mindset will have a huge impact on the kind of career you have, and here are some tips for developing a more resilient mindset”.

    • #5 by David Winter on 16 September 2009 - 10:31

      The internal/external attribution thing is quite interesting. Neither internal nor external attribution is necessarily wrong unless it is taken to an extreme.

      For example:
      Extreme internal: “I’ve applied for lots of jobs but haven’t got any. I must be so rubbish nobody would want to employ me. It’s not worth bothering.”
      Extreme external: “I’ve applied for lots of jobs but haven’t got any. No matter how hard I try there are just no jobs around at all. It’s not worth bothering.”

      Either way, it’s clear that attitudes and beliefs can have as much impact on one’s employability as information and career management skills. There was an illustration of that on the Today programme this morning. There was an interview with someone who was made redundant in the recession [audio]. It seemed fairly clear that he believed that there was nothing he could do and no-one was willing or able to help him. It’s distressing that people are being driven into depression, but if you were a recruiter with jobs available, would you be keen to hire someone with an attitude like that?

  3. #6 by John King on 16 September 2009 - 10:44

    Both these theories form a part of cognitive behavioural therapy. Whilst some CBT techniques may not be so successful in a careers context (for example, keeping self-report diaries), others (such as thought experiments) might be more successful. If I might suggest a good future topic for the blog, CBT in Careers may be very interesting.

    Although in some ways we are not in the same position as CBT counsellors – our clients may not recognise they have a problem – in some ways we are in a much more powerful position, as we are able to influence the environment in which our clients find themselves. We can directly affect the ‘B’ – the behavioural part of the equation. Boot camps such as Bright Futures are an attempt to do this, as are attitude-based interventions, such as work with student societies. My own view is that attempting to influence attitudes via standard, guidance interview based techniques, is inefficient and ineffective. Is this true?

    • #7 by David Winter on 16 September 2009 - 11:57

      Depends what you mean by ‘standard, guidance interview based techniques’ and what you mean by ‘inefficient and ineffective’.

      Whenever I train on guidance (either one-to-one or group) I usually emphasise that it is not just about giving information and advising on tactics – it can also be about addressing beliefs, attitudes and ways of thinking that affect employability and career success. So, if you’re doin’ it right it can be ‘effective’. Whether it’s efficient…that’s another question.

      [CBT in careers - duly noted for future posts - will probably take more than one!]

      • #8 by John King on 16 September 2009 - 14:34

        Yes true – I’m making a sweeping (and hence erroneous) statement there. My point then is: do we look at the format of our interventions enough? We certainly look at the content – but what about the context? Does this blog cover that? Should it? Lack of social capital seems more than a minor hindrance to be dealt with by excellent one to one guidance skills. It’s a challenge to the entire Careers model. We don’t have to follow the format that our predecessors in CAS followed, if they are no longer appropriate for the changing expectations of our clients. And it’s worth bearing in mind that our perception will be that we are more effective the more our client base self-selects.

        I’ve realised that I’m going completely off-topic here and talking about influencing groups rather than individuals. Are there any resources / theories that deal with this area?

  4. #9 by David Winter on 16 September 2009 - 17:57

    You’re not off topic. This blog is intended to be about how theory and stuff can influence all aspects of careers work. It’s not just about what we do as individual careers advisers or information officers; it can be about what we do as a careers service or an institution.

    Watch this space…or make suggestions…

    • #10 by Emma Janes on 2 October 2009 - 12:25

      I found this really interesting to read – thank you for this.

  5. #11 by Diana Alston on 6 October 2009 - 12:50

    Any ideas about how to enable students to develop resilience?

    • #12 by David Winter on 6 October 2009 - 13:09

      Hi Diana

      That’s a good question!

      I guess that the first step is raising awareness that this might be going on. If you watch the video in the follow up post, this gives a good example of someone demonstrating the effect of learned helplessness in a group setting. You could use this a basis for discussion with students about how difficulties in job hunting might affect their motivation and self-belief.

      The next stage would be to make the link between persistence/innovation and eventual success. Perhaps this could be done by examining stories of people who have managed to get jobs despite the recession.

      We need to be careful that the story connects to the audience. Borrowing from Planned Behaviour we need to make sure there is a connection between:
      (a) the behaviours espoused and the desired result
      (b) the situation/background of the person in the story and the situation/background of the person hearing the story
      (c) perceived abilities of the person and the difficulty of the actions required

      A more risky approach is to move the ‘locus of control’ towards the individual by pointing out what they haven’t done that they could have and how that impacts on their results.

      For more ideas on resilience and positive psychology try http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk.

      Does anyone else have thoughts on this?

  6. #13 by John King on 13 October 2009 - 21:43

    Interesting article here: http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/10/how-rewards-can-backfire-and-reduce-motivation.php regarding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the effects of reward.

    “tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation (…) Even when tangible rewards are offered as indicators of good performance, they typically decrease intrinsic motivation for interesting activities.”

    Do Careers Services, and indeed Universities, unwittingly create learned helplessness? By emphasising doing something because it will improve your CV – doing something because you will receive a reward (volunteering on a CV, a piece of paper that says you have a good degree) – we are decreasing intrinsic motivation.

    Doing something because it looks good on your CV is an awful reason; one that I would never suggest to a student now but a reason that I have been trained to suggest. Do something because you want to do the thing itself. It is so much more rewarding.

    By suggesting otherwise we are creating an environment that may create long term harm whilst apparently doing good in the short term. Is the medicine actually poison?

    • #14 by David Winter on 14 October 2009 - 07:58

      That is an interesting article. I think that what it talks about is different from learned helplessness. LH is when you don’t take action because you can’t see the point and don’t believe something is possible. This article talks about people putting in less effort when they see themselves working for a reward rather than doing something because they enjoy it for its own sake.

      It certainly should make us think about the consequences of pushing voluntary work for the reward of skill development rather than for its intrinsic value.

      The people who ought to pay most attention to this research are employers, especially those who offer big money to ‘attract the best candidates’. They may be shooting themselves in the foot. See this article on another blog.

  1. Time-wasters’ diary « Careers – in Theory
  2. More learned helplessness « Careers – in Theory
  3. Interesting shorts – recession and resilience « Careers – in Theory
  4. How many needs? « Careers – in Theory

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