Martin Seligman famously conducted experiments on dogs where he was able to induce “learned helplessness” in the dogs via electric shocks.
What is learned helplessness?
Learned helplessness is a behavior exhibited by a subject (animal or human) after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. An important keyword here is “control”. The subject feels that the situation is beyond their control and eventually gives up and stops trying. The curious phenomenon is that, even when help arrives, the subject may have learnt to feel helpless that they/it will not leverage the help.
The serenity prayer comes to my mind:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. As it reads, it sounds a bit ambiguous, but I will take the explanation that the prayer urges us to accept things that are beyond our control but not learn to be hopeless.
Examples of learned helplessness
Children: Not doing well in a specific subject repeatedly could cause the child to think they are not good enough for that subject.
Organizations: If you don’t understand the criteria for getting promoted or if you think politics is rampant, your ambition droops. This is why fair and understandable promotion processes are important in organizations.
Fixed vs. growth mindsets
This is also related to the fixed vs. growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, you assume that your intelligence is fixed, and that you have no control over your intelligence. So when you repeatedly fail, you are quick to conclude that it is because of factors that you cannot control (such as due to your fixed intelligence or blame it on external factors) and learn to become helpless. In a growth mindset, you know that you can improve your intelligence with effort. Even in the face of failures, you know that you have some factors in your control (e.g. the amount of effort you can put in) and that helps avoid learned helplessness.