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Patty Kleban: Learned Helplessness

by on September 24, 2012 6:48 AM

My husband was out of town for a few days on a guy’s golf trip to Myrtle Beach. While he was gone, I noted my garage door opener remote wasn’t working. Pulling in the driveway with my 16-year-old son in the car, I pushed the button and nothing happened. Grabbing the remote as we got out of the car, I winked and told my son “Dad can fix this when he gets home.”

I was practicing learned helplessness.

Yes, as a college educated, working professional, and mother of three, I can read and understand directions, I’m perfectly capable of changing a battery in a remote control. On the other hand, sometimes it’s easier to let someone else do it for me. We sometimes don’t use the skills and abilities that we have because we become used to other people doing it for us.

If you want proof, watch people in an office at a copy machine. It’s amazing how helpless we become.

The concept of learned helplessness was first identified in the late 1960s by researchers Seligman and Maier in studies that were intended to look at conditioned responses in people with depression. In a series of experiments with dogs, the researchers found that a significant number of dogs who had learned that they were unable to control their environment (in this case, electric shocks), eventually gave up trying. Similar research with humans found that many subjects who had learned that they had no control over their environment got to the point that they didn’t bother to try.

In situations where we do not believe that we have control or when we receive reinforcement for not attempting a behavior, the theory is that we become passive, dependent and, possibly, depressed.

Applied to my household, it looks like this. When I was single and living on my own, if my toilet overflowed, my car made a funny noise or the remote control didn’t work, I would identify the problem and determine the necessary steps to fix it. (OK, I admit that I would also occasionally call my Dad). In the years since I’ve been married, when the toilet overflows, the car makes a funny noise or the remote control doesn’t work, I have essentially unlearned the skills to fix it. “Honey, can you fix it?” In effect, past successes with letting my husband solve the problem have positively reinforced my helplessness.

It’s the same as when he says “Do you know where I can find my blue socks?” I say “In the sock drawer.”

Some people call it marriage. Others identify the phenomenon of learned helplessness. By relying on others, we basically learn to do less than we are capable. We unlearn the response to act or make a decision. Feeling that we have no ability to impact our own lives has been linked to low motivation, anxiety , anger, and depression.

Learned helplessness is a talking point in the upcoming presidential election. When people are down and out, how long and how much support does the government give them? One side believes that it is the government’s responsibility to take care of people whose situation has put them at a disadvantage. The other side views it that individuals who are rewarded for non-work may eventually unlearn how to take care of themselves. I think it’s probably somewhere in the middle. There are people who can’t help themselves and need help but there are many people who have essentially stopped trying because we’ve told them they don’t have to.

Learned helplessness can be a lesson in parenting. My husband and I have differed in our perception of how much support kids need to get up in time for school. I have a tendency to remind, prompt and nag until they get going. I have to admit, his decision to step out of the process and let them sink or swim has usually had better results plus it helps to make our mornings more pleasant.

College students fall into learned helplessness. What chapters will be covered on the exam? How many pages do you want for the paper? Rather than answer question (over and over and over), I direct them back to where they can find the information and thereby help them along in their independence.

It’s about having control over our own lives.

In the studies on learned helplessness, researchers identified the “optimist” who, despite an environment that didn’t offer many options, kept trying and who continued to believe that he or she had the ability to change the outcome. That can-do attitude can have a huge impact in how we perceive the world. The key for parents, teachers, employers and politicians is how to foster a climate that empowers others and gives the perception of control back to individuals.

Learned helplessness in relationships is funny. Sometimes we do things for other people out of kindness or respect. Sometimes, if we count on someone else doing it for us, we become voluntarily helpless. The feeling of mastery and success in taking on a task for which we have viewed ourselves incapable is a self-esteem builder.

As for the garage door remote control? It’s still sitting on the kitchen window sill with no batteries.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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