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?