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Learned Helplessness

A person is using scissors to cut through a white piece of paper changing the saying from, "I can't do it" to "I can do it"I recently attended a meeting where the speaker spoke about Down Syndrome. The woman has a child with Down Syndrome herself—so that made me trust her expertise a little more. Her child is gainfully employed and leads a full life. During the meeting, another woman in the crowd raised her hand to discuss an experience she had with someone who had Down Syndrome.

The audience member explained that she was trying to help a customer in an elementary way. Eventually, she felt bad because she realized she greatly underestimated the customer’s intelligence level. The meeting’s speaker confirmed that this happens often, and it’s referred to as “learned helplessness.” This article will explain what learned helplessness is and how it should be avoided.

What is Learned Helplessness?

So, what is learned helplessness? Learned helplessness is when a subject can’t get away from negative stimulus, so they eventually just accept it. For example, the woman who spoke about helping the customer. Since the customer probably has people treat her differently all the time, she’ll get used to it and act like she can’t do anything on her own.

The concept was originally discovered by psychologist Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. They started their research by analyzing behavior in dogs. The animals were conditioned to receive an electrical shock after hearing a tone. Later, the dogs were placed in a double-sided box that had a low barrier the dogs could easily jump over. One side of the box was electrified and the second side was not. When the dogs were given an electrical shock, they made no attempt to avoid it because of their previous conditioning.

Learned Helplessness and Parenting

Those of us who have raised teenagers may think that this type conditioning has merits. While most of us have not used an electrical charge to teach our kids, we may well have facilitated learned helplessness. Simple things like being frustrated over a dirty bedroom provide an opportunity to teach helplessness. Rather than teaching the child what needs to be done, it’s just easier to do it yourself. Inadvertently the child may actually believe they are helpless to do such tasks on their own!

Chalkboard with the words, fairness positive, trust, reliability, honesty, and integrity written on it.Other Examples of Learned Helplessness

There are plenty of examples of learned helplessness in today’s society. Well-intentioned programs designed to help people, too often end up producing helplessness in the very people who need assistance. Rather than teaching skills to allow people to gain the confidence to better their lives, the program offers a quick fix that only leads to the need for more and more ineffective fixes! We are inundated with media portrayals of people they call helpless. Anyone who constantly hears that they are helpless will believe what they are taught.

A little girl with braids is playing with car toysOrganizations Doing it Right

In previous blog posts, I’ve mentioned how impressed I am with The Boys and Girls Club. Many of the kids that attend these clubs come from a less than ideal background. The programs at our local Boys and Girls Club teach and reinforce confidence so that the kids can learn the correct way of doing things without needing help! I am also intrigued by organizations whose function is to get to the root of the problem and fix it.

Organizations are working with schools to assist in concentrating on learning Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) These efforts address the issue of what is called income inequality. Some programs provide short term fixes but ignore the fact that nothing is being done to address how people may feel. The real work is done with educational emphasis! Demonstrating and helping children and adults understand that they are capable of many things, offer a solution to poverty.

Helplessness and Fear

It is frustrating for me to know that so many good paying jobs in technology and trades go unfilled while capable people financially struggle because they learned (incorrectly) that they were not capable of doing better. Helplessness and fear go hand in hand.

We can agree or disagree on the value of increasing the minimum wage (see my blog Wage increase? The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). Yet, if we provide learned helplessness as part of the plan, many will be left thinking the minimum is the best that can be accomplished. The team at Allen & Co. knows we can all do better.

April 2021

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