Learned helplessness and explanatory styles for success and failure

So, in the last article, we touched on the concept of “learned helplessness” by Martin Seligman and examined the features of the formation of this psychological state on the experience of dogs and people.

Many users in the comments noted that I incorrectly stated the parable of mice, because in fact frogs appeared in it, and butter cannot be whipped from milk. Cream only. Yes it is. It was not very important for me to preserve every detail of the story, because the point is not WHO tried to escape from a bucket with some contents, but WHY someone gives up right away, and someone continues desperate attempts for survival or change conditions.
(Yes, and the “prayer for two mice” from the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” is still closer to me than about frogs).

Here, by the way, is another business parable. In India, mahouts of elephants achieve their obedience in a cunning way. When the baby elephant is small, his leg is tied to the trunk of a young tree with a hemp rope. The baby elephant tries to break the rope, jumps in all directions, but cannot free himself in any way. Gradually he gives up his attempts and becomes submissive. He no longer tries to break the rope, because he has learned that it is impossible. When such a baby elephant grows into a huge and powerful elephant that can carry heavy loads all day, they continue to tie it to a peg with the same rope every day. But the elephant does not even try to free himself, because as a child he made so many attempts.

Similarly, not only highly organized animals, but also fleas behave in situations of obtaining the experience of helplessness. A rather old video is circulating on the network, where fleas are put in a glass jar, in which they spend as much as 3 days (according to the author of the video). All these three days they are beating against the walls and the lid of the jar. On the fourth day they are released, they are free, but the effect is this: the fleas jump exactly to the height that was limited by the size of the jar, although they no longer have any restrictions. The fleas have learned their lesson.

But still, a person is a person. He is not a louse, and not a trembling creature. In Hiroto’s experiments on learned helplessness in people, additional factors such as internal/external locus of control and the style of explaining successes and failures were taken into account.

Locus of control is a term coined by social psychologist Julian Rotter in 1954. The locus of control is the property of a person to attribute their successes or failures only to internal or only external factors. Thus, an external (external) locus of control is attributed to a person who describes the situation of success / failure as a random result of a combination of circumstances or some unknown forces. An internal (internal) locus of control is present in people who attribute the result of success / failure to their internal personality traits: efforts, abilities, skills, etc.

So, in Hiroto’s experiments, the following result was obtained: subjects with an internal locus of control made 4 times more attempts to avoid a shock effect (loud sound) than with an external one.

Based on the results of all studies, scientists came to the conclusion that learned helplessness is formed in a child by the age of 8. Deformation occurs in 3 areas: motivational, cognitive, emotional.

We list the main sources of the formation of learned helplessness:

  1. The experience of experiencing adverse events in childhood. These include undeserved grievances sometimes inflicted by parents, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, a serious illness, divorce of parents. Thus, the child experiences a lack of control over the events of his own life and is faced with a sense of helplessness.

  2. The experience of observing helpless models. Here we should also mention the media as a source of the formation of ideas about the futility of efforts to achieve the desired result.

  3. Experience of lack of autonomy in childhood. For example, a mother who does everything instead of her son involuntarily accustoms him to helplessness.

A little later, Seligman noticed that the individual describes his negative or positive results disproportionately. So, he introduced the concept of explanatory style, which he called optimistic and pessimistic.
Explanatory style is the way a person is accustomed to explaining to himself why something is happening. The formation of the explanatory style occurs in childhood and adolescence, eventually becoming a permanent characteristic of the personality and remains for life.

Style characteristics included three parameters:

  1. Persistence is a temporary variable;

  2. Latitude is a spatial variable;

  3. Personalization – Who is to blame?

Yes, for pessimistic style characteristic is the explanation of bad events by personal (internal) characteristics, which are constant and general (universal). The explanation of good events is connected with temporary, concrete and external reasons (for example, luck, chance, etc. unknown factors). This style is a predictor of depression. The truth here needs to be corrected: a pessimistic explanatory style can lead to depression only if a person feels a sense of hopelessness!

optimistic style explanation, on the contrary, describes bad events by external, temporary and specific characteristics, and good ones by permanent, universal, internal causes. This style is a predictor of mental and physical health.

What are the origins of each explanatory style?

Seligman and colleagues have conducted a number of studies examining the sources of explanatory style in children. The main sources considered were: the role of parents as models of explanatory (attributive) style, the role of criticism from adults (parents and teachers), and the role of adverse events and crises in a child’s life.

The child’s explanatory style of bad events was found to be related to the mother’s explanatory style (regardless of the child’s gender). It was assumed that the child spends more time with the mother than with anyone else, and her answers to the question “Why?” form his ideas about the causes of success and failure. By listening attentively to one or another of the reasons that the mother tells him, the child learns whether, for example, the reasons for the failures that she has to face are permanent or temporary, specific or broad, her mistake or someone else.

The nature of the feedback (parents/teachers) is another source of explanatory style formation. That is, as parents, teachers, etc. significant adults explain the reasons for the successes and failures that occur in a child’s life. For example, “You’ve always had problems with math” or “You’re always sloppy” lead to the formation of a pessimistic style. Thus, the criticism that adults address the child with his failures leaves an imprint on what he thinks of himself.

However, as Seligman and colleagues found, learned helplessness and explanatory style can be corrected, for example, with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Hollon and Freeman developed the ABCDE technique.

Facing a negative eventA – activating event) a person evaluates it in accordance with his often irrational ideas (B – belief), which in turn cause various negative emotional and behavioral consequences (C-consequences). Cognitive therapists, however, suggest changing these beliefs by challenging them (D – discussion) and constructing a new effective philosophy (E – effective philosophy).

The client learns a number of important skills

First, learns to identify and track automatic thoughts, that is, habitual phrases that slip through the mind, usually go unnoticed. He is taught to pay attention to the explanations for negative events that are permanent, pervasive and personal and write them down.

Secondly, the person learns to analyze, question and refute destructive automatic thoughts and interpretations. A person is asked to analyze the “evidence” in detail, and if the “guilt” of some thought is proven, to conclude whether it is worth continuing to deal with the problematic thought or abandon it and find a replacement for it, since a vacuum in consciousness is impossible.

Thirdly, a person learns to do reattributions, that is, to find various alternative explanations for events and use them in a discussion with their automatic thoughts. He learns to find explanations that are appropriate for a particular situation, for example, not to blame himself for negative events that he cannot control, soberly assessing the situation and finding adequate external explanations for it, explaining it not in terms of “always” and “never”, but in terms of specific reasons that gave rise to it.

Fourthly, a person is taught to be distracted from gloomy thoughts, that is, to control not only what he thinks, but also when and how much time he devotes to it.

And finally, fifthly, he learns to replace negative automatic thoughts with more positive ones. In this way, constructive thinking skills are gradually acquired, characterized by flexibility, realism, positivity and maturity.

How else do you think you can deal with learned helplessness?

If you are interested in such material, and you want to read articles on the topic of achievement motivation, then I will be grateful for the feedback.

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