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How the sense of powerlessness can be learned. And taught!

You should not think, you just must do it!

2023 July 26 | by Arduino Mancini Resilience

In the cartoon strip, I have reported a conversation that everyone has experienced at least once: which I hope has provoked in you at least a motion of rebellion.

Where do expressions such as “You don’t have to think, you just have to obey” come from?

What is its purpose?

Can one learn pessimism? And the sense of helplessness?

I will do my best to answer the questions in this post.

A widely held belief exists that pessimism is a personality trait, and that a sense of helplessness is something we bring with us from birth.

In the cartoon strip, I have reported a scene that everyone has experienced at least once: and which I hope has provoked in you at least a motion of rebellion.

Is this the way things work?

Not exactly: experimental evidence suggests that pessimism and a sense of helplessness can be learned.


First, let’s go to the essence of the word pessimism and give it a shareable definition.

We can define pessimism as an attitude that tends to grasp the worst aspects of a situation, and to predict a negative outcome from actions aimed at changing it; the pessimist person feels that he/she has limited or no control over events and thinks that a negative event may last forever.

In essence,

a pessimist is a person who feels helpless when facing reality.

That said, the main question turns out to be this:

can helplessness be learned?

And can a boss make employees learn helplessness?

In his book Learned Optimism Martin Seligman describes one of the early experiments on learned helplessness, which he conducted in 1964-65 with Steven Maier, at the time also a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The experiment employs dogs, and the young researchers must decide whether to submit the animals to electric shocks that can be painful; after much thinking Seligman and Maier decide to proceed (I refer you to reading the book for the interesting arguments about the decision to proceed).

Three groups of dogs are created:

  1. the first is placed in a box and exposed periodically to short electric shocks that the animal can terminate by pressing its nose against a board;
  2. the second group of dogs is exposed to short electric shocks simultaneous with the one in the first, with the difference that no action can make them stop;
  3. the third group is subject to no action.

At the end of this first phase of the experiment, the dogs are moved to a box with two sections; an electric shock is spread in the first section, to escape from which the dogs simply jump over the barrier separating them from the second.

The result?

Dogs in the first and third groups react to the shock by jumping the barrier,
while those in the second group show that
they have learned the uselessness of their actions
and do nothing to avoid it.

The experiment is repeated in the following decades in different variations, with other animals and with humans, leading to results in line with those obtained with the first experiment:

the feeling of helplessness can be taught.

What can we learn from this experiment?

Thoughts go to the functioning of an organization run by managers who like to centralize decisions or by so-called charismatic leaders; these organizations end up paying an expensive price to their ego.

These leaders prove to be impervious to feedback and attempts to change their thinking are unsuccessful; this leads staff members to consider useless any action not in line with the leader’s belief.

The consequence of all this is learned helplessness, i.e., the resignation to the futility of any attempt to improve the situation; so, people put their brains in the fridge and employ it only when required, just doing their best to survive.

The impact on business results is easy to guess, especially when the organization does not function with the number of heads needed to deal with the day-to-day complexities: yet of this we are too often cheerfully unaware.

What can you do to escape the sense of helplessness? And what you can do to change the direction of events that affects you?

Here are three things that you may find helpful:

  1. Do not repress that healthy impulse of rebellion you feel when you are told you don’t have to think; continuing to run your brain will be good for you and the organization;
  2. Reflect that there are very few situations where you cannot induce change: careful analysis will show you more than one way ahead;
  3. Although the time it takes to realize the expected result may not be short, consider the unwanted situation temporary: this will help you persevere and keep on toward the goal.

In short,

learning helplessness and falling into the trap of pessimism is very often a choice: ours!

What do you think?

If you want to know more about resilience you may be interested in the training course Develop resilience to improve performance.

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