Learned helplessness


Learned helplessness is the behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused by the subject's acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented. Upon exhibiting such behavior, the subject was said to have acquired learned helplessness. Over the past few decades, neuroscience has provided insight into learned helplessness and shown that the original theory had it backward: the brain's default state is to assume that control is not present, and the presence of "helpfulness" is what is learned first. However, it is unlearned when a subject is faced with prolonged aversive stimulation.

In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy; the individual's belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.


The most grave example of learned helplessness in modern times was the reaction of European Jews to the Nazis. Witnesses who returned to villages and cities to give warning, were discredited, hampered and negated by lack of authority; and the ways in which Germans treated Jews established conditions most conducive for the production of learned helplessness, the most extreme state of which was death in the concentration camps.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality
Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
26.04.2022 – 08:29 CEST