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Loss of Control & Burnout
Dr. Beverly Potter

Learned Helplessness

Psychologist Martin Seligman spent years studying the impact of "controllability" on people and animals which is described n his book, Learned Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death.

In a typical study matched pairs of dogs were divided into two groups, one where the dog could control what happened and one where it could do nothing. In the first situation, a naive dog was place in a room with an electric grid floor. This first situation was called "controllable" because the room also contained a puzzle. If the dog "solved" the puzzle, the shock stopped. In this example the puzzle was a lever, which when pushed, turned off the shock.

Since the dog had never been in the room before and it had no knowledge of the shock it was about to receive, the dog was relaxed and friendly as it wagged its tail and wiggled its nose. However, when the electric floor was activated, the dog's demeanor changed dramatically. It jumped and yelped as it frantically searched for a way out. In the process the dog accidentally pushed the lever, causing the shock to stop -  a powerful negative win. Over the next couple of trials when the dog was put back in the room and the shock turned on, the dog learned very quickly to run to the lever and push it. The dog was highly motivated - albeit avoidance motivation - because the dog learned that it could do something to control its world.

The dog in the "uncontrollable" group was placed in the same room with the electric floor, only this time there was no puzzle and there was nothing that the dog could do to turn off the shock. Just like the first dog, it ran around trying to find a way out. When the dog eventually learned that there was nothing that it could do it gave up, and laying down on the floor, it took the shock. The dog was not motivated because it learned that it was helpless.

Later the second dog that had learned that it was helpless was put into the room with the puzzle but it made no effort to find a way out. Instead the dog just lay on the floor and took the shock. Even when the door was left wide open, the dog did not attempt to escape the shock. The dog could not seem to learn that the conditions had changed and that it was no longer helpless.

To summarize, the second dog "learned" that it was helpless and stopped trying to get away. Its motivation to escape was extinguished or eliminated. In the process, dog exhibited a lot of negative emotions: first yelping and growling, later whimpering, and eventually just remaining motionless. Something happened that interfered with the dog's ability to learn when things changed and when it could do something. In effect, the dog burned out.

Powerlessness at work can affect people in the same way. As you learn that there is nothing you can do you'll probably experience negative emotions, beginning with frustration and anger, later anxiety and guilt, and eventually depression and despair. In the process, motivation declines. When the conditions change you will probably find it hard to learn and continue acting helpless.

Of course, scientists can't subject people to such experiments so we have no direct scientific data on the effects of powerlessness on human subjects. However, we can speculate that the battered-wife syndrome may be caused by learned helplessness, for example. If the woman believes that she is powerless before an abusive husband, she will probably act like the dog on the grid floor, taking the abuse and not running away when she has the opportunity. People in the ghetto who don't avail themselves of opportunities, such as educational programs, may fail to do so not because of laziness, but because they have learned that they are helpless and, as a result cannot act. Homeless people who are skilled and were once securely employed but now are
unable to hold a job, may also be victims of learned helplessness. People who are chronically depressed may have become so as a result of uncontrollable situations. For example, there is a statistic claiming that more Vietnam Vets committed suicide than were killed in the war. Perhaps they were suffering from burnout. Remember the yellow ribbons and the people held hostage over 400 hundred days in Iran? A large percentage of the hostages developed chronic depression. Perhaps it was learned helplessness.

In his research, Seligman discovered that animals who learn to be helpless have little resistance to adverse situations. They often die in as few as ten minutes when placed in a survival situation, whereas animals who have learned mastery continue fighting to survive hours later. This research suggests learned helplessness is literally life-threatening. Research suggests it even triggers a biological suicide mechanism. In some cases biological functions simply slow down or cease; other studies indicate that the body may develop a terminal disease. This notion has been supported by research with cancer patients that suggested that people who are depressed and feel like victims were more likely to get cancer.

An uncontrollable situation can be harmful without being physically painful, however. Feeling helpless can do serious damage to motivation in any situation, even those filled with luxury and privilege. An example is the poor little rich boy whose daddy does everything for him.  As a kid he breaks a window with a ball, and daddy fixes it.  He gets ho hum grades in school but gets into college anyway because daddy gave a big donation. After graduation he gets a job with a big salary and a corner office in daddy's firm.

Surprisingly, the poor little rich boy's situation is similar to the unhappy worker suffering under a hypercritical boss.  While the worker is overloaded with criticism and the rich boy has an overabundance of goodies, both lack a sense of control. Neither feel they can influence what happens to them. Seligman emphasizes in his research on learned helplessness that it is not the quality of the situation that causes feelings of helplessness and depression. Even though we tend to think that the cause is punitive circumstances, situations filled with rewards can also lead to the same debilitating learned helplessness and depression when the person does not have to perform to get those rewards. Seligman describes research with rats and pigeons in which they could choose between getting food free and having to make certain responses to get the same food. The rats and pigeons choose to work!


Copyright © 1980, 1993, 1998: Beverly A. Potter, from "Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work", Ronin.  All Rights Reserved. This article man be down loaded for person use.  Any other use requires written permission from docpotter.

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