The Conflicts of Learned Helplessness In Motivation

From: Kelly Shields
Course: CD170: Contextual Influences on Cognitive Development
College: San Jose State University
Instructor: Eugene Matusov, Ph. D.
ChildrenObservations: No
Date: 21 May 1997
Time: 14:49:35
Remote Name:


Learned helplessness is a severe problem and needs to be fixed. The causes are by how parents and or teachers respond to children's failures and successes. If humans feel as though they can not control their environment this lack of control will impair learning in certain situations. This is shown through Bruce Overmier and Martin Seligman's experience with dog going through a shock treatment. The effects of learned helplessness is a lack of self-confidence, poor problem solving, wandering attention and feeling hopeless. This might set children behind in academic subjects and damper social skills. Another issue is that learned helpless children are extrinsicly motivated and not so much intrinsicly motivated because of their failures. A child suffering from learned helplessness will ultimately give up gaining respect through academic performance an turn to other domains for solace.


Learned helplessness was recognized by Martin Seligman, Steven Maier, and C. Peterson. Incidently in the mid- 1960’s, during their attempts to test prediction of two-process learning theory, they had discovered this disorder. Thier learned helplessness research lasted from 1967 to 1975 and concentrated on the clash between the explanation they had offered and the traditional theories. They did most of their research in experiments with animals. They recognized Russell Leaf's and Bruce Overmier’s experiment with dogs who were experiened with an unavoidable and avoidable shock method (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993).

There are certain ways that one could look at the learned helplessness deficiency. This paper will be focusing on the definition and understanding of learned helplessness as well as the characteristics involved. Another concideration is the affects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational understandings.

Learned helplessness is a motivational problem where one might have failed in a task or two in the past which have made that individual believe that they are incapable to do anything in order to improve their performance in that task(s) (Stipek, 1988). This is detrimental to children's development troughout life if it is not fixed appropriately. If humans feel as though they can not control their environment, this lack of control will impair learning in certain situations (Ramirez, Maldonado, & Martos, 1992).

Learned helplessness is caused by parents and or the children's teacher(s). They both might indicate that the child's failures are caused by their lack of competence, rather than suggesting that they are not trying hard enough (Cullen & Boersma, 1982).

It is said that humans' basic drive is to control their environment (Stipek, 1988). In turn, if a person has a lack of control over an aspect of their environment in one situation this will impair learning in similar situations. If a person is put in a situation where their behavior is unaffected, they become passive and their desire to act or try harder desolves. B. Overseer and M. Seligman have shown this in their experiments with dogs who were delivered with shocks (Seligman, 1975). The dogs who are inexperienced with the shock treatment learned fastest to avoid the shocks. The dogs who experienced unavoidable shocks before hand did not learn and just lied there; they gave up. These experienced dogs lied there and soaked up the shocks because they felt that they had no control over their environment, so they did not try.

Learned helplessness has detrimental effects on children. They develop a lack of self-confidence in challenging tasks which result in deterioration of performances(Dweck, Davidson, Nelson, & Enna, 1978). These children also use poor solving strategies; their attention wanders and they feel that they are struggling for nothing. This might even put learned helpless children behind a grade or two in academic subjects and damper their social skills. In the end, they get a message that they are worthless and hopeless (Berger, 1983). They feel incompetent and unable to master any new material or task. Learned helpless children "know" that they are failures and will not think otherwise. In Erikson's view, he suggests that children with few successes will become inferior which leads them to have a low self-esteem (Berger, 1983). Most learned helpless students give up trying to gain respect through their academic performance so they turn to other means for recognition. They may become the class clown, bully or tease. When they begin adolescent years they try to gain respect through antisocial behaviors (Berger, 1983).

There is more to understanding of learned helplessness than its definition and characteristics. Intrinsic motivation (Stipek, 1988) is innate; a natural popensity to engage one’s interest and exercise one’s capacities. Intrinsic motivation effects the developing child’s experiences in three ways: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. With learned helplless chidren competence is almost entirely destroted. They lose confidence with in themselves because they experience failures, leading them to believe they are failures. They might feel competent about something at first but if they fail in that activity they won't bother to try it again for fear of failure. Autonomy is also faint in a learned helpless student’s life. They feel as though they have no control over their environment because no matter how hard they tried in the past, they never succeeded. As for relatedness, learned helpless students feel as though they don’t belong because they believe that they don't relate to the enviornment. This is why they become the class clown, bully or tease in order to get their recognition. These results may include becoming an antisocial individual during their adolescent years or earlier. These three factors are all detrimental to an individual's growth and development in our social world today.

Intrinsic motivation is when one does something because they want to and not because they have to. When one is suffering from learned helplessness they feel as if they have to do the task because it is out of their control; they have no choice. Learned helpless students might be intrinsically motivated at first, but if they fail at the task than they become uninterested and are intimidated in subjecting themselves to do the task again in the future. Their curiousity desolves as well. The optimal challenge is lost and it seems to this type of person as if it is not available in the environment for them, they will not try to seek out solutions. They lose their desire to challenge the tasks they've failed in the past, therefore, denying themselves success.

Most humans have an intrinsic need to be competent and to explore behaviors. If they fail thier competence diminishes and they feel no need to explore. This is when one becomes helpless.

Intrinsic motivation deals a lot with learning and achievement which tends to be associated with creativity, increased cognitive flexibility, positive emotional tone, and a development of high self-esteem. If one is pushed away from the intrinsic motivation to learn or to achieve something they will most likely lose all of the characteristics that makes a happy person. In other words, learned helpless students are depressed because they feel as if they have no creativity, that they are not cognitively flexible, they have little positive emotional tone and that they have a low self-esteem (Milkulincer, 1994).

Learned helpless students do not fit under the intrinsic motivational characcteristic. They fit more in the area of extrinsic motivation (Stipek, 1988). This motivation is based on external rewards, the avoidance of threats or punisshments, gaining recognition, and conforming to socially accepted behavior. Learned helpless students try to avoid failure and punishment from their teachers. They try to become recognized by others through being the class clown, tease, or bully, and they only work for external rewards because they have no interest to do a task but to get a grade, a sticker , a candy, a token, etc. When they go into thie adolescent years they become very antisocial in order to conform to socially accepted behavior. Learned helpless students feels the need to respond to socially prescribed demands, limits and patterns of behavior. Extrinsic motivation is also oriented towards seperable goals, rewards, contingencies and values upon individual’s satisfaction of the task. Learned helpless students feel as if they have no choices because no matter what they do they will fail.

In conclusion, learned helplessness deficiency is detremental for students in the motivational theory of education and life itself. Teachers need to help cure and prevent these problems, as much as possible, by identifying wether a student is intrinsicly or extrinsicly motivated in the tasks children are involved with.


Berger, K. S. (1983). The school year: Psychosocial development.

Dean, P. (Ed), The developing person through the life span (337-338). New York: Worth Publishers.

Cullen, J. L. & Boersma, F. J. (1982). The influence of coping stratagies on the manifestation of learned helplessness. Contemporary Educaitonal Psychology, 7, 346-356.

Dweck, C. S., Davidson, W., Nelson, S., & Enna, B. (1978). Sex differences in learned helplessness: II. The contingencies of evaluative feedback in the classroom and III. An experimental analysis. Development Psychology, 14, 268-275.

Milkulincer, M. (1994). Human learned helplessness: A coping perception. PB PLenum Press: New York.

Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helpessness. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ramirez, E., Maldonado, A., & Martos, R. (1992). Attribution modulate immunization against learned helplessness in humans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 139-146.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (1975). Learned helplessness: Depression, development and death. W. H. Freeman: New York Stipek, D. E. P. (1988). Motivation to learning. Allyn & Bacon: Boston.

Web References

Gem From Chapter 2. This response submitted by Viraf Karai on 11/12/96. http//

Mastery Oriented vs. Learned Helplessness in Children. By Shawn Parrish. http//129.49.7L236/psy104/presentations/shawn.htm.

Last modified August 06, 2015