Quote of the Moment: Ellen Langer on learned helplessness

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

2 Responses to Quote of the Moment: Ellen Langer on learned helplessness

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    I’m strapped for time these past few weeks — thanks for the links.

    I wish I could recall where I heard the brilliant analysis about how the writers are among the last great defenders of the common working man and the American dream. It was a great commentary.


  2. bernarda says:

    This is a bit stretching to be on topic, but as you don’t often post on labor issues I thought I would bring this up. Here are some people, even rather rich, who refuse to remain passive.

    Phil Robinson explains the screenwriters’ strike.

    Of course these people are rather privileged compared to most, but the principle is important.

    Pete Seegar puts it clearly, “Solidarity Forever”.


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