In detail

Helplessness Learned as a predictor of depression and academic failure

Helplessness Learned as a predictor of depression and academic failure

The verification that the deficits induced by learned helplessness (that is, exposure to an inescapable aversive situation) bear a close resemblance to the symptoms observed in human depression, led Seligman (1975) to propose that learned helplessness could be an appropriate model for the study of depression acquisition in humans, which, in fact, increased interest and research on this phenomenon.

From the initial demonstration of the helplessness effect (Overmier and Seligman, 1967), an enormous amount of research was initiated on the effects of aversive uncontrollability with different types of studies.


  • 1 Learned Helplessness and Depression
  • 2 Learned Helplessness and academic failure
  • 3 Experiments on learned helplessness and prevention of depression and school failure

Learned Helplessness and Depression

Internal attributions and depression

The proposed defenselessness as a model of depression acquisition meant a huge amount of research on the relationship between defenselessness and depression. More recently, these investigations focused on the importance of the attributional style in depression, and it was demonstrated the existence in depressive people of a attributional style specific that aggravates the mentioned depressive state. We have characterized this attributional style as the tendency to attribute failures to internal, stable and global causes. But if this is so and the attributional style influences depression, we should agree that if we change the attributional style, we can not only improve the depressive state, but even prevent its appearance. Recent research allows predicting these effects.

We can assume, therefore, that there is a close similarity between depressive symptoms and the consequences of helplessness.

However, what is really important is that every time an individual experiences an uncontrollable aversive situation (traumatic situation and / or failure), there is a "helplessness" that creates a vulnerability to depression in addition to a greater helplessness in the future. This vulnerability occurs because the individual develops internal, stable and global attributions, at least for these types of situations. But when this sense of helplessness expands to multiple different situations and the individual develops a depresogenic attributional style, an irreversible process begins and the individual enters a tunnel that inevitably leads to clinical depression.

The models of learned helplessness have further enhanced the development of more effective treatment techniques for depression and led to the recognition that the treatment of depression depends on the use of sets of cognitive techniques, the therapeutic efficacy is already recognized, especially for the best long-term results that the same pharmacological therapies typically used in the treatment of depression.

This whole set of results not only supports the explanatory power of the model of defenselessness learned in the acquisition of depression, but also its applied power, since it is possible to predict populations at risk in the acquisition of depression and even deduce reliable techniques of Prevention of depression and helplessness.

In summary, learned helplessness can be applied to different fields, not only clinical, but also educational and social, and in this sense it can represent an example for the development of similar models of other altered behaviors. To what extent we are able to achieve it will depend on our own future research capacity.

Learned Helplessness and Academic Failure

Focusing on the model of learned helplessness, we can assume that a situation of school failure can become an aversive and uncontrollable situation for many individuals and, therefore, susceptible to initiate a defenseless process.

If we assume that an academic failure, specified in obtaining bad grades, can be considered an aversive situation, when the individual experiences it as uncontrollable, the effect of learned helplessness that induces an altered emotional state, specific cognitive disorders and disorders would occur. Motivational that will induce more subsequent failure and, in the longer term, can induce a state of depression.

Now, always according to the model, the greater or lesser incidence of such helplessness will depend critically on the type of expectations and attributions that the individual develops in this situation. Therefore, the existence of negative expectations and global, internal and stable attributions for such failure, entails the beginning of a series of predictable behavioral consequences, the most important consequences would be: depression, failure and social isolation.

Therefore, once a school failure situation occurs, the following is possible:

  • Detect populations at risk of acquiring depression, and would be constituted by students who have suffered a school failure and who have an attributive attributional style.
  • Design techniques that allow the control of such aversive situations. These techniques would encompass two types of components:
    • Cognitive components, which is structured in modules that allow training in rewards, control of expectations and others.
    • Behavioral components, which complement the cognitive components, and which would include: training in social skills, and / or problem solving techniques.

The results of different studies are quite indicative of the possibilities of prevention, both of school failure and, above all, of depression resulting from such failure.

Experiments on learned helplessness and prevention of depression and school failure

Wilson and Linville (1985) made a study in which they selected university students who suspended in the first trimester. One part was trained in retribution techniques to use a normal attributional style and avoid attributing the causes of their failures to internal, stable and global factors or causes. At the end of the course, this group of individuals improved their academic results significantly and obtained higher grades than the control group that was not subjected to re-training, which demonstrates the importance of attributions in defenselessness and academic outcome after a first failure.

Subsequently, Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox and Seligman (1995), conducted a study with a group of children who were twelve years old and had depressive problems at the beginning of the investigation, they learned during several sessions to improve their attributional style and problem solving techniques. When they compared the results obtained with a control group without treatment, they not only found that individuals in the prevention group significantly improved their mood as a result of treatment, but, above all, did not get worse in the following two years. However, in the control group there was a progressive worsening that produced a significantly greater number of cases of depression.

The results of the second example suggest that the problem is that a first exposure to a situation of failure or mild depression becomes a powerful predictor or vulnerability factor to failure and subsequent depression, as the model of learned helplessness precisely postulates.

In addition, it is interesting to verify that in studies on the efficacy of cognitive techniques in the treatment of depression, the differences are observed mainly because these techniques prevent or reduce relapse more than the pharmacological techniques normally used with depressants (Evans, Hollon and DeRubeis, 1992; Tracie, Shea, Elkin and Imber, 1992).