Learned helplessness has roots in self-efficacy as well as attribution theory. If a person's sense of self-efficacy is very low over repeated experiences, he or she can develop learned helplessness, a perception of complete lack of control in mastering a task. The attitude is similar to depression, a pervasive feeling of apathy and a belief that effort makes no difference and does not lead to success. Learned helplessness was originally studied from the behaviorist perspective of classical and operant conditioning by the psychologist Martin Seligman (1995). The studies used a somewhat “gloomy” experimental procedure in which an animal, such as a rat or a dog, was repeatedly shocked in a cage in a way that prevented the animal from escaping the shocks. In a later phase of the procedure, conditions were changed so that the animal could avoid the shocks by merely moving from one side of the cage to the other. Yet frequently they did not bother to do so! Seligman called this behavior learned helplessness. Click here for a short demonstration of inducing learned helplessness in the classroom.
In people, learned helplessness leads to characteristic ways of dealing with problems. They tend to attribute the source of a problem to themselves, to generalize the problem to many aspects of life, and to see the problem as lasting or permanent; in other words, an internal, stable attribution of failure. More optimistic individuals, in contrast, are more likely to attribute a problem to outside sources, to see it as specific to a particular situation or activity, and to see it as temporary or time-limited. Consider, for example, two students who each fail a test. The one with learned helplessness is more likely to explain the failure by saying something like: “I'm stupid; I never do well on any schoolwork, and I never will.” The other, more optimistic student is more likely to say something like: “I failed this test because I didn't study hard enough; I can study harder next time.” Note that the latter example implies that there are factors within one's control that can be adjusted in the future.