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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learned Helplessness

In this next post we look at a term by Seligman and Maier, "Learned Helplessness." This is the term that they give to a person who no longer tries to avoid a bad situation because of past experiences in which their effort was unfruitful. For example in the study they found that if a dog was placed in a cage and given electric shock (punishing but not harmful) and was unable to escape that shock it learned to be helpless. This was seen when the dog was later placed into another box in which it was shocked but it could escape the shock simply by moving the dog wouldn't move. An animal under normal circumstances would move where as the dog who was unable to escape the shock in previous experiences did not move.

In our lives we do things because we expect certain results. For example we write novels or blog because we expect others to read and enjoy them. We are willing to be critiqued and to put ourselves out there because we expect that it will make us better writers and give us better opportunities to publish. We also do it because we enjoy it, but this goes along with our expectations. What happens though when we believe that we have no control over the desired outcome. We no longer believe that we can get published and it is out of our control no matter how good we are. We stop doing the activities that may provide us the opportunities to be published (this could go along with self fulfilling prophecies as well).

When we are writing about our characters we can make sense and shape them the way we want them to react by the experiences that they have before the event. We can either give them experiences in which they are successful and gain confidence in their personal power in determining outcomes or we can give them experiences in which they will learn helplessness. This in turn will make the characters more believable to the readers and their behavior will make sense. If in the beginning of your story an orphan boy who has been beaten all his life escapes and immediately begins to lead an army to conquer the demons invading earth, then your readers may find this a little unbelievable. However, on the other hand if this same orphan boy escapes from the orphanage and then is taken in and trained and taught to be a leader, then goes on to lead the army to vanquish the demons it becomes believable. We have all seen this happen both in stories and real life.


  1. You can do it! Don't turn helpless because you are amazing!

  2. I've been thinking about writing a character with "learned helplessness"--though I didn't know the term for it before!

  3. Interesting insights. Learned helplessness is truly crippling.

    I'm an oft-published journalist. And an oft-self-published blogger. Do I want to be a published author? Not really, but I'll think about it.

  4. Hey, Josh. Glad to be back. Lots of reading to do!

  5. I was rereading Brave New World, and the learned helplessness of the worker babies--who get a shock every time they try to pick up a book--is truly creepy. Good stuff to think about, as a writer and a reader!


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