Definition: Pattern of failure to respond to noxious stimuli after an organism learns its responses are ineffective.


In 1965, Martin Seligman and his research team conducted experiments on dogs using Pavlov's idea of conditioning. To begin the experiment, he paired a tone with a shock. During the learning phase the dogs were restrained. They expected their dogs to run away from a shock that served as the conditioned stimulus. They were surprised to find that the dogs, rather than escaping the stimulus, had no response at all. This lack of reaction led Seligman to theorize that the dogs had learned that nothing they did would allow them to escape the shocks. This served as the basis for the idea of learned helplessness.

Quite Simply...

  • No longer trying after several previous failed attempts.
  • Realizing that no matter what you do, nothing will help the situation, so you lose motivation and eventually give up.
  • After experiencing a large amount of repeated failures, you feel you will just fail again; therefore you give up and accept the outcomes.
  • After not achieving something despite trying many times, you believe you can't change the situation for the better.


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  • Learned Helplessness
  • When elders are in a nursing home and are not given a choice over when they get to eat or go to the bathroom, they may acquire learned helplessness for their own lives since they have no control over it.
  • Some girls who have an abusive relationship feel there is no escaping. They learn not to fight back, and simply accept the physical abuse.
  • When someone is constantly being bullied even after reaching out for help, they just accept the bullying.
  • When a dog tries to leave your backyard to chase after a squirrel, but keeps getting shocked by the electric fence so the dog eventually gives up, and doesn't try to leave even if the fence is removed.
  • After constant and continuous misbehavings and disrespectful actions from their child and/or children, parents might start to give up punishment tactics, feeling that nothing will ever help to control or stop the negative actions and behavior.
  • In football, after multiple losses in the regular season, you give up hope on your team making the playoffs and eventually accept the fact it's not going to happen.
  • Learned helplessness can be represented after someone continuously falls in love with others but always ends up heartbroken. They might eventually give up on love and accept the fact that they will remain alone for the duration of their lives.
  • When someone studies for every test, goes for extra help, and does all their homework but still fails the test and quizzes they eventually give up and stop studying and doing their homework because even with doing all of that it still didn't make a change on their test scores.
  • In the picture, the horse has acquired learned helplessness because normally when he is tied to something, he can't escape when he tries. So he has given up trying to escape now, even though it is possible.


1. An experiment by Donald Hiroto was done that followed a smiliar type of idea to test learned helplessness as Seligman & Maier, 1967. Only in this experiment, those tested upon were humans instead of animals. A group of people were split into 3 subsections, each on placed in a different scenario with an adversive tone. Group 1 was placed in a room with an adversive tone and was allowed the ability to turn off the tone. Group 2 was placed in a room with an adversive and was given no way to turn off the tone, they simply had to endure it. Group 3 was a control and was not exposed to any adversive tone. It was found that when the groups were replaced in rooms with an adversive tone that could be turned off, Group 1 immediately stopped the tone, and Group 2 did not even try, due to their learned helplessness.

2. Dora Finnamore did a correlation study trying to find a connection between depression and learned helplessness in mariied women in abusive relationships. She interview various women and found a correlation that several of the women after being in several abusive realtionships developed learned helplessness and gave up trying to have a normal relationship. these women also showed signs of depression which led to the conclusion that women in abusive relationships tended to suffer from depression more positively correlating to the facft that many of them had learned helplessness.


  1. Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock.Journal of experimental psychology, 74(1), 1.