Learned Helplessness with Kym Bennet and Jennifer Welbourne on the You Are Not So Smart podcast with David McRaney

Check out the Episode Page and Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Learned helplessness is a behavior shaped by negative experiences
  • For some people who’ve experienced enough defeat or abuse or loss of control, they learn there’s no escape and don’t act even when able
  • Humans spend less cognitive energy on positive thoughts than negative thoughts
  • Learned helplessness is one of the most damaging and invisible ways to delude yourself
  • Fatalistic thinking: “This is my fault and it’s going to affect everything I do and it’s never going to change”
  • The Explanatory Behavior Model attributes the failure to a situation
  • The Attributional Behavior Model attributes the failure to the person
  • To break the negative-thinking cycle: try attribute-retraining to interrupt the automatic thoughts that occur following negative events
  • Engage in cognitive behavior therapy – train yourself to think about things in different ways and break old ways of thinking

Intro

Kym Bennet is a psychologist who researches the effects of pessimism on health

Jennifer Welbourne is a psychologist who studies attributional styles in the workplace

Learned Helplessness is a Pattern of Behavior

  • Learned helplessness is a thought process shaped by negative experiences in which your brain changes over time and you become helpless even if you aren’t
  • When you feel that a failure has something to do with you, your gut response is to close down
  • Once you believe in your helplessness, you do not open yourself up for new learning
  • Learned helplessness is one of the most damaging and invisible ways you can delude yourself
  • The Ophelia Project – expands on this concept

The Discovery of Learned Helplessness

  • Learned Helplessness was discovered accidentally in the late 1960s during an experiment studying behavior with dogs
  • Researchers found that one group of dogs that had been given no control didn’t try to learn how to escape pain (they were shocked) because they just learned to take the pain
  • For some people, if they’ve experienced enough defeat or abuse or loss of control, they may learn there’s no escape so that even when there is a means of escape, they don’t act
  • One study found that in nursing homes (where conformity and passivity is encouraged) – heath declined rapidly in residents with few choices and responsibilities
  • Prisoners who were given the ability to move their own furniture and choose TV programs had a better attitude and was associated with a lesser chance of riots
  • In homeless shelters, where individuals weren’t allowed to choose food or their bed, people were less likely to look for a job

Two Behavioral Models

  • When humans experience negative events AND explain them as internal, stable, and global  – they experience learned helplessness
  • Humans need to make sense of their experiences
  • The Explanatory Behavior Model – attributes failure (e.g., poor performance on a math test) to a situation (I didn’t study hard enough) – which allows failure to be absorbed
  • The Attributional Behavior Model – attributes the failure to the person (e.g., I’m bad at math) and extrapolates that (e.g., all math classes are bad)
  • Humans spend less cognitive energy on positive things than negative things because people want to figure out why things went wrong

Pessimistic Attributional Style

  • People who believe the cause of negative events is internal and stable and global also believe those events will happen again and again have a pessimistic attributional style
  • Causes are:
    • internal – the belief that it’s a person’s own fault
    • stable – bad things will keep happening
    • global – the negative aspects creep into other parts of their life
  • If you repeatedly, experience negative events and internalize it, you only have more data to support the idea that “this is my fault and it’s going to affect everything I do and it’s never going to change” = fatalistic thinking
  • This interpretation of reality can have a negative effect on physical health

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

  • Culture-wide learned helplessness is seen in areas suffering from severe poverty – an attitude where it doesn’t matter what you do
  • “Live-in-the-moment attitude results in drinking, drugs, dropping -out, then when bad things happen, it’s self-fulfilling” – Jennifer Welbourne
  • Battered women, prisoners, and hostages learn to accept the futility of their situation
  • Any period of extended negative emotion can lead to despair, accepting fate, and leading to loneliness
  • Small failures can lead to bigger failures

Stress in the Work Place

  • When stressors appear in the workplace, like a project failure, people with the pessimistic attributional style think it’s their fault because they’re not competent
  • But people with an optimistic attributional style will reason that the project failed because they didn’t have resources needed or the team was bad – “it’s not about me, this failure isn’t permanent”
  • Cardiac patients who had a pessimistic attributional style were found to have poorer health three months after their heart attack than those patients who didn’t have that attitude

How to Change Your Attributional Style

  • Try attribute retraining – interrupt the automatic thoughts that occur following negative events
  • Be more mindful of the causal factors that surround negative events
  • Don’t go to the rehearsed script of it is all my fault
  • “It’s amazing to me how flexible and adaptive the human social mind is” – Kym Bennett
  • Try to create situations that have a positive outcome or where you have control
  • Engage in cognitive behavior therapy – train yourself to think about things in different ways and break old ways of thinking

Parting Advice

  • Slow down
  • Be mindful
  • Go off autopilot, stop the automatic thoughts
  • Stop snap judgments
  • Consider other possibilities
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Notes By EWerbitsky

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