karthik · updated · flag · 4

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where an animal, after repeated traumatic experiences, eventually stops making any attempts to act upon it.

Way back, behavioural psychologists experimented on dogs by putting them in a cage where one half of the floor can be shocked. One group of dogs had the option to jump over a small barrier to avoid the shock. Another group of dogs didn’t have that choice. They had to endure the shock as long as it lasted.

Over time, after repeated trials, when the first group of dogs was put in an escapable shock cage again, they escaped by jumping the barrier — just how they were conditioned to. But the second group that had ‘learned’ to endure the shock refused to escape and took the shock passively, even when the escape was as easy as jumping the barrier.

Similarly, when humans are exposed to repeated negative emotions without escape, we eventually learn the ‘helpless’ state and continue to endure it even when we are capable of acting upon it or realising that we have control over the situation.

For the dogs, the learned helplessness was alleviated by training them to take the steps towards the escape. And in humans, just the realisation of the fact that we have control makes a huge difference. This is a widely considered area of research in product design as well.