Learned Helplessness

Gareth I. Jones
4 min readMar 24, 2023

There might be a lesson you’ve not realised you’ve learned which stops you from even trying.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

When my son was moving into his big boy room we fitted an Alexa to control the lights and play white noise. One of his favourite things the Echo Show downstairs did was play animal sounds, and when he finally worked out that Alexa was the wake word we would need to tear him away from the device to save another round of hyena calls and rhino squeaks.

Then, one night, he realised the Alexa in his room did the same thing, and he would keep himself — and us — up asking for animal after animal.

But there’s a way out, you can change the wake word from Alexa to something else. After about three nights of changing the wake word to Computer and not saying it out loud, he gave up and stopped asking for animal sounds. Now, we still use the Alexa wake word but he doesn’t even try to activate animal sounds in his room.

I was wary to avoid the temptation of doing lots of psychological experiments on my only child, but it struck me straight away that this was a classic case of learned helplessness.

Learned Helplessness

The first research into learned helplessness came from Martin Seligman, later one of the driving forces behind positive psychology.

The basic premise was that, when tested, dogs that previously felt they had no control over seemingly random electric shocks didn’t even attempt to avoid them. Those that felt they could, did.

By Rose M. Spielman, PhD — Psychology: OpenStax, p. 519, Fig 14.22, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77570421

As the image illustrates, all the dogs had to do was jump over the low partition, but they didn’t even try. And even when offered rewards to jump, or punishments to stay, they only moved when the researchers picked them up and moved their legs for them.

There’s a lot more depth here, it’s a fascinating topic.

Learned Helplessness in Communities

Learned helplessness was expanded through attribution theory, and Seligman, along with Lyn Yvonne Abramson, John D. Teasdale, and Bernard Weiner found that people who are prone to overgeneralisation, magnification, and arbitrary inference were more like to have a depressive reaction to failure.

I see and hear this in our communities. What’s the point? It’s a waste of time. Things will never change.

There might have been hope once upon a time, there might have been belief in their own abilities, or the system’s capacity, but it has long since gone.

I think the crabs in a bucket idea comes from this too. People don’t want to be proven wrong, we like the world to exist as we perceive itand even more don’t want to be called lazy or accused of not trying if someone else does and succeeds.

Don’t Stop Pushing

The lesson in here for social entrepreneurs is to recognise and be aware of if, and when, you’re being held back by any learned helplessness.

If you stop at the first sign of pushback then you might be misreading the signals.

It’s one of my great frustrations with the whole Lean Startup idea. Some of my best breakthroughs have come after pushing through, when the initial feedback might have been negative or made us feel helpless.

I talked a bit about this in the post on the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. Don’t mislabel pushback as rejection, or your own helplessness.

Sometimes you need to stick to the plan and see it through.

The other side of this is knowing when it’s time to quit, that’s a little more complicated.

The first no doesn’t always mean no, it might be a sign of resistance, or assertion of control. It’s a skill to develop to understand why you’re hearing no, and what you’re being told.

This post could have fit into the “why haven’t you already started series” earlier in the year, learned helplessness might be the reason you don’t even realise is holding you back.

There’s an element of sunk cost fallacy in here too, we can feel helpless because of prior decisions, but we have more power than we realise.

These can be multi-layered. The social pressure, the confidence to accept previous commitments were wrong, and staring down the previous hard no.

Tackling Learned Helplessness

One wish I have is that governments, politicians, and regen officers really understood this mental model better. If we invested less in shiny buildings and more in giving folks confidence that they could do something about things they don’t like then I think it could be transformative for nations.

We need to feel control. We need autonomy. There’s a significant benefit to our mental health that we just don’t talk about enough.

Various surveys suggest that we would need to earn an extra £2,000, £4,000 or 10% of our salary to give up flexible working, but if we ignore that rational way of looking at it we might value it even higher.

Our sense of control over how we use our time, any feeling of guilt for misuse of our weekdays, and the opportunity cost of how we might use that time — spent with family, friends or otherwise — can be pretty hard to attribute a financial value to.

Learned helplessness is a complicated part of the way we see and interact with the world — does it work for you or against you?

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.