From Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism

To get up time and time again in the face of adversity, we must move from learned helplessness to learned optimism. Here’s how.

More than fifty years ago, two young academics from the University of Pennsylvania placed their participants into three groups and began one of the most well-known psychology experiments in history. There was just one important difference to most of the other ongoing experiments at the university: their participants were dogs.

In Part 1 of their experiment, Martin Seligman and Steven Maier placed each of the dogs into a harness.

The fate of the first group was simple: they would stay in the harnesses for a period of time and then be released.

The second group was less fortunate. These dogs were given random electric shocks, which they could stop by pressing a lever.

As for the poor dogs in the third group, each was paired with a dog in Group 2. In other words, whenever a dog in Group 2 was delivered an electric shock, its paired dog in Group 3 also received a shock of equal intensity.

But there was one key difference. Dogs in the third group couldn’t press a lever to stop the electric shock. Instead, they had to wait until their paired dog in Group 2 took action. To Group 3 dogs, the shocks therefore appeared to start and end at random. They had no control over the outcome.

In Part 2 of the experiment, the same three groups of dogs were put into large crates divided by a short (but very jumpable) barrier. This time all the dogs could easily escape electric shocks by jumping to the other side. In short, they could all end the electric shocks by taking action. Their escape was within their control.

As you might expect, the dogs from Group 1 and 2 quickly learned they could escape, gladly jumping the barrier and ending their torment. But Group 3 – which had learned in Part 1 of the experiment that they had no control over the start and end of the shocks – behaved differently. Most of these dogs simply curled up passively and whined when they were shocked.

Despite the option to help themselves, the dogs in the third group had learned helplessness.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a tendency to believe we cannot control a current situation because of repeated past adversity and lack of control. Through our past experience, even when presented with future stressful situations we can control, we come to believe we cannot control or change the situation. Like the dogs in Group 3 of this seminal study, we learn helplessness.

The Perils of Learned Helplessness

It’s easy to see how this idea can be pervasive throughout our lives. If we have consistently confronted failure in an effort to change our health, money and habits, we can arrive at the conclusion that no matter what we do, it’s hopeless.

This is a damaging psychology, with wide-ranging impacts on our well-being and prospects of success.

#1: We learn few valuable lessons. A cornerstone of success is our ability to overcome repeated adversity. When we deem adversity inevitable and uncontrollable, we may decide not to bother. In turn, we’ll miss the lessons that adversity provides, and we’ll miss the opportunity to surprise ourselves and seize control of our outcomes.

#2: Our self-esteem takes a battering. When we deem a controllable situation hopeless, we begin the dangerous self-talk that says success is a matter of luck and failure is a matter of course. Inevitably, learned helplessness can start to hammer our self-esteem.

#3: We don’t ask for help. If we deem the situation helpless, perhaps we won’t seek help or a second opinion. We’ll let the inevitable happen, missing out on the help or advice that could change our course.

#4: We lower the bar. If we feel helpless in trying to achieve one standard, perhaps we’ll settle for something less. This can become a spiral of unfulfilled potential.

The Flipside: Learned Optimism

Becoming accustomed to situations we can’t control can fool us into believing the same rules apply in situations we can control. But there is an important, often missed point in all this. While the majority of the dogs in Group 3 had learned helplessness, some did in fact jump the barrier. Some didn’t learn helplessness. Some, when faced with adversity, got up and overcame it.

Martin Seligman is widely regarded as one of the fathers of positive psychology, not because he gave dogs a small electrocution in the 1960s but because, in effect, he has subsequently dedicated his career to understanding those that don’t learn helplessness.

In 1991, Seligman published the flipside: Learned Optimism. According to Seligman, at the heart of the difference between those who learn helplessness and those who resist its traps is our explanatory style.

Key Concept – Explanatory Style: Our explanatory style is a psychological term for how people explain to themselves why they experience an event, either positive or negative.

Seligman points to three key differences between optimists and pessimists in this narrative:

  1. Permanence: Optimists see negative events as temporary; pessimists see them as permanent.
  2. Pervasiveness: Optimists assume helplessness is limited to its area; pessimists assume that failure in one area extends across life as a whole.
  3. Personalisation: Optimists own the positives; pessimists attribute them elsewhere.

The conclusion is twofold. First, those who already embrace this optimistic explanatory style are less likely to fall into the trap of learned helplessness. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we can adapt our explanatory style to “learn optimism”.

From Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism

Not only can a more optimistic outlook help us get over the risks of learned helplessness, but research also suggests the optimistic live longer and enjoy a better quality of life. (As always, I hasten to add that this evidence is associative, not causative.)

The question, then, is how can we cultivate it?

#1: Adapt Your Explanatory Style

If we are to shift our mindset to learned optimism, we must first take a hard look at our self-talk.

Seligman’s suggested process for learning optimism follows a simple ABCDE model:

  • A – Adversity: First, reflect on the adverse event that you faced.
  • B – Belief: Second, reflect on the thoughts you had during and after the event.
  • C – Consequence: Third, reflect on the impact of those thoughts.
  • D – Disputation: Fourth, challenge the beliefs and their consequences.
  • E – Energisation: Finally, reach the outcome of challenging those beliefs.

This kind of cognitive reflection is all about challenging and rewiring our explanatory style. The idea is to slowly use points D and E to rewire our thinking when confronted with similar future scenarios.

#2: Recognise What You Control

To repeatedly face adversity, we must accept and embrace it as part of the self-improvement journey. But of course, not all adversity is a necessary part of this journey. The critical distinction is in recognising what we control. There are times when this will require objective reflection, and there are times when we can only control our reaction.

#3: Get a Second Opinion

As we’ve seen, when confronted by repeated adversity, the line of control can become increasingly blurred. When the line of controllability gets blurry, seek a second, objective opinion. A sounding board can provide some much-needed rational thinking when bogged down in the emotion of repeated failure or adversity.

#4: Celebrate Small Wins

Sometimes even going forwards can feel helpless. If progress towards a final goal is slow and demoralising, breaking down goals into smaller, trackable goals can play an important motivational role. Developing the habit of completion and subsequent tracking stacks a pleasurable habit of tallying up achievement with the habit of showing up and completing the smaller goal. We can learn optimism by celebrating small victories.

The Courage to Challenge

Learned helplessness is a sure-fire way to stay poor and miserable. It breeds victim mentality and paralyzes us from taking decisive, controllable action.

But when advocating a shift to learned optimism, let me be clear on a key point: there is a profound difference between blind optimism and learned optimism. We can’t be perpetually optimistic. This would be absurd.

What we must do instead is challenge irrational pessimism, challenge a perceived lack of controllability, and challenge ourselves to get up again. The opportunity cost of not doing so is far too great.

Do you get the key takeaway yet? Like those exceptional dogs in Group 3, to jump the barrier after repeated adversity, we must have the courage to challenge ourselves.


  • Learned helplessness is a tendency to believe we cannot control a current situation because of repeated past adversity and lack of control.
  • It can have wide-ranging negative impacts on our future well-being and success.
  • To shift our outlook from learned helplessness to learned optimism, we should adapt our explanatory style, recognise what we control, seek out second opinions, and celebrate small victories.

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