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Helplessness, Learned

Definition

Learned helplessness refers to a phenomenon in which an animal or human experiences an uncontrollable, inescapable event and subsequently has difficulty obtaining desirable outcomes, even when it is easy to do so. The term is often used to explain why people may display passive, helpless behavior or feel powerless in situations that are actually simple to avoid or change.

Background and History

Martin Seligman and Steven Maier discovered learned helplessness accidentally while conducting behavioral research on negative reinforcement with dogs. They set up a cage with two compartments separated by a shoulder high wall, called a shuttlebox, that allowed the dogs to escape a mild but painful electric shock delivered to the floor of one side by jumping to the other side. Typically, dogs easily learn ...

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