The Way You Think Affects Your Mental Health: Part 2

In The Way You Think Affects Your Mental Health part one (http://localhost:8888/test/?p=1139), I discussed the phrase “mind over matter” and the power of our brains over our health.

One theory that was briefly mentioned was Martin Seligman’s Theory of Learned Helplessness.


Learned helplessness is defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as:

“a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversivestimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are ‘escapable,’ presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation”.

Basically, not trying to take any action to alleviate or get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that there’s no point: you are helpless, and nothing you do will change the situation. You are not in control.

So, how did Seligman design an experiment that demonstrated this? He did so accidentally.

Seligman was initially conducting an experiment on classical conditioning, where he would ring a bell or shine a light before he delivered an electric shock to dogs, with no escape.

He found that the dogs would react as if they had been shocked, even when he rang the bell without actually shocking them.

When he moved them to another environment (as shown above), he assumed that the dogs would move across the small fence to escape/avoid the pain of the shock or the anticipation of a shock.

However, something odd happened: the dogs seemed to just accept their fates and sat on the floor, taking all of the delivered shocks.

Perplexed by this outcome, Seligman placed other dogs in the environments with the fences, ones that had not been through the conditioning stage beforehand.

These dogs immediately jumped over the fence to avoid pain, whereas the first group of dogs did not– whether they were enticed with rewards or threatened with punishments; nothing changed their behaviors.

Seligman theorized from these results that instead of conditioning, the dogs had learned “helplessness”.
Being exposed to a negative outcome that was inevitable over and over again, no matter what they did, taught the dogs that they were helpless, and absolutely nothing they did could change the outcome of their situations.


This goes back to depression in human patients, where individuals that were inclined to thinking negatively, as in Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Triad, eventually showed a lack of  willingness to commit to therapy/treatment or “getting better” because they believed that in the future, things would only get worse and be out of their control.

The perceived lack of control caused the “helpless” behavior, even in situations that could have been helped.

So to oversimplify things, thinking negatively will make your behavior more negative– so try to be optimistic!


Some advice:

  • Don’t attribute the outcome of a situation only in an internal way, and instead adapt a global attribution when thinking about how situations turned out/will turn out
  • Have a strong sense of self-efficacy, and…
  • Believe that you have an internal locus of control. (Confused with the technical terminology? Part 3 coming soon!)

You can listen to my podcast in four parts here:




Behavioral Science. Duequesne University.


Lefcourt, Herbert M. (April 1966). “Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A review”. Psychological Bulletin 65 (4): 206–20. 

Nolan, J. L. (2014). Learned helplessness. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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