Quote of the Moment: Ellen Langer on learned helplessness

November 14, 2007

A much more pernicious loss of choice and control is brought about by repeated failure.  After a number of experiences in which our efforts are futile, many of us will give up.  Well-known research by psychologist Martin Seligman and others shows that this learned helplessness then generalizes to situations where the person can, in fact, exercise control.  Even when solutions are available, a mindless sense of futility prevents a person from reconsidering the situation.  The person remains passive in the face of situations that could easily be handled without undue difficulty.  Past experience determines present reactions and robs the individual of control.   . . .

Learned helplessness was originally demonstrated in rats.  When placed in ice water, they have no difficulty swimming around for forty to sixty hours.  However, if, instead of being put immediately into the water, the rats are held until they stop struggling, something very different happens.  Instead of swimming, these rats give up immediately and drown.

Ellen J. Langer (b. 1947), Harvard University psychologist, Mindfulness, 1989, pp. 53-54


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