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What Was The Learned Helplessness Experiment?

Did you ever perform so poorly on a test that you began to feel like nothing you do will have any effect on your performance? Learned helplessness makes you feel this way.

Did you ever perform so poorly on a test that you began to feel like nothing you do will have any effect on your performance? Maybe your learning strategies were less effective, or maybe you did not have the help you needed. Learned helplessness makes you feel this way. It happens when you end up in a situation where you feel like you have no control because of previous experiences. It can result in a variety of mental health issues because people feel there is nothing that can be done to relieve these feelings.

Fortunately, it is something that can be overcome.

The Background Story

Martin Seligman's learned helplessness theory begins with classical conditioning, the process of associating one thing with another. Maybe you heard of Pavlov's dog experiments, the story of how accidental research of digestive response in dogs led to the discovery of classical conditioning. 

Well, Seligman's experiment was also accidental and performed with dogs (albeit considered cruel and unethical). Back when Martin Seligman was just a graduate student, he started working at Richard Solomon's (another fellow psychologist) laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Just A Dog In A Cage

Solomon's laboratory was already working with dogs on a study closely related to Pavlov's studies about conditioning and avoidance learning. The researchers at the laboratory conducted tests that included electrical shocks to the dogs along with tone signals as the unconditioned stimulus.

The dogs were placed into shuttle boxes with two chambers, separated with a jumpable barrier, with one part of the box providing shelter from the electric shock. The dogs were expected to associate the tone signals with the electrical shock and jump to the safe side of the box.

This is where Martin Seligman steps in. Upon his arrival at the laboratory, he noticed unusual behavior in some of the dogs. These poor animals were experiencing electrical shock but did not bother to avoid it. They just sat or laid at the part of the cage with electricity. Seligman then performed a series of experiments, along with some of his student colleagues (one of them was Steven F. Maier), trying to figure out this interesting phenomenon. 

Seligman's Learned Helplessness Experiment

Seligman and his colleagues orchestrated a new experiment with three groups of dogs. All of the groups were placed into a rubber harness but with different options available. The first group of dogs was held for a certain duration of time and then set loose. The second group was subjected to electrical shocks, which they could avoid by pressing a panel with their nose to end it. The third group also received electrical shocks, but this group of dogs had no panel to press and thus no way of stopping the shocks.

The following day, each of the dogs from the three groups was set free inside a cage with a barrier that separated the floor into two halves. The next step was to trigger a light signal that would electrify one part of the floor. All the dogs needed to do to avoid the electricity was to jump over the barrier. The dogs from the first two groups quickly avoided the electrical shock, but the dogs from the third group did nothing to try and ease their discomfort. Because of the previous stage of the experiment, they learned that nothing they did had an effect on the electrical shock. 

After analyzing their results, they described the phenomenon as "learned helplessness," and the only way they could change their behavior was to physically move their legs and copy the actions needed to escape the electrified part of the cage. Even though this experiment was initially demonstrated on dogs, it's effects can be seen on all animals, as well as humans. 

What did Seligman see when he came to Solomon's laboratory?

He noticed unusual behavior in some of the dogs. These poor animals were experiencing electrical shock but did not bother to avoid it. They just sat or laid at the part of the cage with electricity.

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