Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Learned Helplessness and Depression

One cognitive account of depression is the Learned Helplessness Theory (Seligman, 1975). It argues, that depression occurs when people expect that bad events will occur and that there is nothing they can do to prevent them, or cope with them.

Learned Helplessness Theory emerged through Martin Seligman's work with laboratory dogs. He designed an experiment which consisted of three individual dogs, all restrained by harnesses. Dog group (a) was the control group, receiving no electric shock. Dog groups (b) were paired up. One dog in a pair was administered with a mild electric shock and at any time the dog could cease the electric shock by stepping their paw upon a lever. Dog group (c) were too paired up, however one of the dogs was a wired up to a dog in group b and the shocks they received were in congruence with that of group (b). The idea of this was that the group (c) dog would receive a shock that was erratic in timing, unavoidable and inescapable. The tests resulted in groups (a) and (b) recovering quite promptly from the experience. As predicted however, group (c) dogs were left meek and subdued; portraying symptoms similar to those of clinical depression and thus conforming to Seligman’s predictions: that helplessness can be learned. 

Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. It can involve a state of apathy or passive behaviour induced by negative conditioning. People may believe that their personal 'defects' will render them helpless to avoid negative events in the future, and their sense of hopelessness places them at significantly greater risk for depression.

Although Seligman theorized that learned helplessness and depression had similar origins, the theory was widely criticized and he has since revised his ideas in his 'Explanatory Style'. This proposes that depression is linked to how we attribute causalities of certain events in our life or traits of our existence (i.e. whether we attribute events to internal, stable or global aspects) (Yen, 1998). Therefore, it is interesting to ask whether learned helplessness is in fact a cause of depression or a correlated side effect of becoming depressed.
"Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better" ~ Martin Seligman