How does repeated exposure to trauma lead to learned helplessness?

14 Mar

Learned helplessness is the belief that we are incapable of changing the course of negative events therefore failure is inevitable. The condition stems from a lack of perceived control. Once learned helplessness  has been relied upon for a long time, it can be rather difficult to reverse the effects.

Research has shown that people that have developed a pervasive pattern of learned helplessness are less likely to change bad habits and behaviours, are less focused, can experience difficulty with solving problems (related to analysis paralysis), often experience higher stress and suffer from emotional lability.

The learned helplessness effect has been proposed to be one of the reasons why partners of domestic abuse perpetrators stay in abusive relationships despite overwhelming evidence that they should leave.

Similarly, repeated exposure to traumatic events in which the individual has either no actual or perceived control, depending on the circumstances of the trauma event, may lead the individual to, despite awareness of what occurred the first time, remain passive and unconscious of their ability to exercise control (i.e., call the police, yell or scream, run away, say no etc). Learned helplessness can also be understood in terms of classical conditioning but that can be saved for another day.

For those that are interested in how the phenomenon of learned helplessness was discovered please read on. 

Experiments conducted on dogs in the mid 60's by psychologist Martin Seligman produced, inadvertently, what is now known as the learned helplessness effect. In the first part of the experiment, the dogs in the first group were harnessed inside the cage then released. The 2nd group were harnessed in a cage and received electrical shock at random times which they could stop by pressing a lever. Group 3 was in same condition as group 2 except their lever did not stop the shock.

In the 2nd part of the experiment, all 3 dog groups were placed in cages with a low partition they could jump over if needed. All groups were given an electric shock. The dogs in group 1 and 2 jumped over the partition to escape the electric shock. Surprisingly, the results found that most of the dogs in group 3 refused to jump over the partition to escape the shock and instead chose to lay down. The researchers attributed this to the dogs in the 3rd group learning in part one that they had no control over their environment (i.e., the lever did not stop the shocks) therefore nothing they do in part 2 would make any difference so why bother.

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