Jan 12, 2018 in Analysis


The Causes and Consequences of Learned Helplessness

From birth until death, people aim to take control of the environment and take advantage of it. Lack of concern and passivity is not in favor in the nature of humans, which are tailored to be in charge of the things around and make sense of the world. In that case, why do others comply with the directives of their parents, friends, supervisors and the authority even if they deem that change is indispensable? Why do others passively expect for someone to do something even though they have the means and capacity to instigate a change? Resolving these queries will illuminate reasons why people become submissive, indifferent and passive in some cases and what remediation could be taken to resolve motivation-related troubles.


When you look up Oxford Dictionary, the term "helpless" has been specified as "a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed." Learned helplessness was originally defined as impaired instrumental responding following exposure to inescapable aversive events and has been found in man and animals across a variety of species and aversive conditions. Given by this definition, a person get helpless after being subjected to recurrent failure, distressing event or incapable to get preferred rewards and display this helplessness manifestation by ceasing trying and feeling hopelessness. Therefore, helplessness is a learned reaction, which demonstrates itself as surrender, detachment and passiveness as a response to adverse circumstances.


Learned helplessness theories have successfully explained portions of learned helplessness phenomena, but the power of these approaches has been limited because distinct theories are needed to account for the full range of findings across both animal and human learned helplessness. In 1976, Martin Maier and Steven Seligman developed one the earliest models about learned helplessness. It states that people who are incapable of controlling the results or the occurrences around them feel emotional, cognitive, and learning (motivational) shortfalls, which negatively influence their behaviors and attitudes. Their model explains that those who cannot achieve desired effects with their conducts or who evade unwanted circumstances are not willing to show required behaviors when faced with related situations. Cognitive deficits retard the person's ability to respond properly, and motivational deficits impair the initiation of voluntary receptions. In other words, they seem to think that responding altogether is useless leading to difficulty in discovering desired behaviors. Ultimately, the feeling of helplessness produces emotional tribulations such as depression and anxiety.

Causes and Factors

Humans may become passive for plenty of causes. One attribution could be the lack of essential capabilities and resources and accept the condition as it is. There are situations that people become passive despite the competence to change adverse circumstances. The belief that nothing can be done, and the feeling of uncontrollability over events could induce apathetic and passive behaviors.

Helplessness is entirely dependent on the perceptions of people, meaning the stressors that affect a few do not affect others at all. Personality style, wants, gender, priorities and age could shape the way people explain positive and negative outcomes, consequently determining whether they would resort into depression, helplessness, and stress. Ozge Tayfur (2012) summarizes the organization and individuals factors of learned helplessness.

General Organizational and Individual Factors Causing Helplessness

Factors reducing the sense of control

  • Highly centralized and formalized structure
  • Tall hierarchy
  • Goal setting system not compatible with knowledge and abilities of employees
  • Performance appraisal system not linking effort to performance and performance-to-reward.
  • Demanding jobs (difficult and complex tasks, jobs requiring to meet deadlines)
  • Inappropriate leadership style (dogmatic, petty tyranny leadership)
  • Lack of empowerment and participatory leadership
  • Sudden, continuous technological changes
  • Pessimistic attribution style (explaining unfavorable outcomes with internal, stable and global factors; favorable ones with external, unstable, specific factors)
  • Having maladaptive perfectionism
  • Having an internal locus of control
  • Having low achievement motivation
  • Scoring high on neuroticism and negative affectivity
  • High workload
  • Role ambiguity and conflict
  • Unmet expectations
  • Lack of alternatives for finding jobs and promotion


The consequences of learned helplessness could be divided into psychological, biological, and organizational. Physiological symptoms are known to be lack of neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, difficulty of sleeping and loss of appetite. Apart from these, psychological problems such as anxiety aggression, depression, shame, apathy, hostility, emotional exhaustion, anger and emotional dissociative disorders are argued to be associated with helplessness. In addition, helplessness creates problems in organizations. The tendency to be reluctant to report unethical drills, absenteeism , make mistakes, demonstrate passive actions such as unwillingness to speak up and challenge other people, withdrawal, and decline in performance are listed as key organizational consequences of helplessness.


It cannot be denied that learned helplessness induces emotional, cognitive and motivational inadequacies, which make it hard for people to learn new matters, deal with misfortunes, and take initiative. It is important to remember that helplessness is a learned response, which means it could be unlearned, and therefore be kept from happening. The methods in reducing or preventing helplessness are dependent of the cause. Helplessness should be considered as a severe motivation crisis because it has the capacity to hold back individual, organizational and societal growth and development.

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