What is Learned Optimism?

Introduction

Learned optimism is the idea in positive psychology that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated.

In contrast with learned helplessness, optimism is learned by consciously challenging any negative self talk.

Overview

Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism – one that grew from pessimism – is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarised as “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”.

Other differences exist between pessimists and optimists in terms of explanatory style:

  • Permanence:
    • Optimistic people believe bad events to be more temporary than permanent and bounce back quickly from failure, whereas others may take longer periods to recover or may never recover.
    • They also believe good things happen for reasons that are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events.
    • Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes.
  • Pervasiveness:
    • Optimistic people compartmentalise helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole.
    • Optimistic people also allow good events to brighten every area of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred.
  • Personalisation:
    • Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that occur.
    • Optimists are therefore generally more confident.
    • Optimists also quickly internalise positive events while pessimists externalise them.

History

Seligman came to the concept of learned optimism through a scientific study of learned helplessness, the idea that a certain reoccurring negative event is out of the person’s control. As he was performing tests to study helplessness further, he began to wonder why some people resisted helplessness-conditioning. He noticed that, while some subjects blamed themselves for negative outcomes, others blamed the experiment for setting them up to fail.

Seligman shifted his focus to attempting to discover what it is that keeps some people from ever becoming helpless. The answer was optimism. Using his knowledge about conditioning people to be helpless in the lab, he shifted his focus to conditioning people to be optimists. The result of these experiments led to defining the processes of learning optimism.

Research

In a study completed by Martin Seligman and Gregory Buchanan at the University of Pennsylvania and published by the American Psychological Association, learned optimism techniques were found to significantly reduce depression in a class of college freshmen. As incoming students to the university, a survey determined the most pessimistic students and they were invited to participate in the study. They were randomly assigned, half to attend a 16-hour workshop on the techniques of learning optimism, and half were the control group. In an 18-month follow up, 32% of the control group suffered moderate to severe depression and 15% suffered moderate to severe anxiety disorder, whereas only 22% of the workshop participants were depressed and 7% had anxiety issues. Those who participated in the learned optimism workshop also reported fewer health problems over the 18-month period of the study than those students in the control group.

A study done by Peter Schulman at the Wharton School, published in the Journal of Selling and Sales Management, looked to determine the effects of applying learned optimism in business. After measuring the optimism levels of an insurance sales force, it was determined that the optimistic sales people sold 35% more, and identified pessimists were two times more likely to quit in the first year than optimists. As a result of his studies, he recommends testing sales job candidates for optimism levels to fit them to appropriate positions, training employees in learned optimism techniques, and designing an organisation overall to have attainable goals set and good support from management.

Finally, a study conducted by Mark Ylvisaker of the College of Saint Rose and Timothy Feeney of the Wildwood Institute looked at children with executive function impairment. The children had brain functioning impairments affecting motor skills, memory, or the ability to focus. Learned optimism was not taught to the children themselves, but rather to their caretakers, who often are more likely to feel helpless than optimistic in regards to caring for the child. It was found that learned optimism in caretakers of children with brain damage actually led the children to develop more functioning than children without optimistic caretakers. Thus Ylvisaker concludes that the optimism of professional rehabilitators can affect the results of their clients.

Seligman’s Method of Learning Optimism

According to Martin Seligman, anyone can learn optimism. Whether currently an optimist or a pessimist, benefits can be gained from exposure to the process of learned optimism to improve response to both big and small adversities. A learned optimism test (developed by Seligman) is used to determine an individual’s base level of optimism. Being in the more pessimistic categories means that learning optimism has a chance of preventing depression, helping the person achieve more, and improve physical health.

Seligman’s process of learning optimism consists of a simple method to train a new way of responding to adversity, specifically, by learning to talk themselves through personal defeat. It begins with the Ellis ABC model of adversity, belief, and consequence. Adversity is the event that happens, Belief is how that adversity is interpreted, and Consequences are the feelings and actions that result from the beliefs. This is demonstrated in the example below:

  • Adversity: Someone cuts you off in traffic.
  • Belief: You think, “I can’t believe that idiot was so rude and selfish!”
  • Consequence: You are overcome with anger, yelling profanity at the other driver.

In the journey to learning optimism, emphasis is placed on first understanding one’s current reaction to and interpretation of adversity. Learners are asked to keep a journal for two days in which they note small adverse events and the beliefs and consequences that followed. Next the learner returns to the journal to highlight pessimism (e.g. pervasiveness: “it doomed me…”) in their written descriptions of the events.

To the ABC model, Seligman adds:

  • “D” (Disputation):
    • Disputation centres on generating counter-evidence to any of the following: the negative beliefs in general, the causes of the event, or the implications.
    • D also means reminding oneself of any potential usefulness of moving on from the adversity.
    • Disputation for the above traffic example might sound like this: “I am overreacting. I don’t know what situation he is in. Maybe he is on his way to his daughter’s piano recital and is running late. I’m sure I have cut people off before without meaning to, so I should really cut him a break. I am not in a hurry anyway.”
    • Over time, responses like this are predicted to change feelings to be more hopeful and positive.
  • “E” (Energisation):
    • Successful disputation leads to energisation, the E in the ABCDE model.
    • One is energised, and should indeed try to actively celebrate, the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment that come from successful disputation of negative beliefs.
    • Disputation and Energisation (celebration) are the keys to Seligman’s method.

Teaching children learned optimism by guiding them through the ABCDE techniques can help children to better deal with adversity they encounter in their lives. If children are taught early then the thought process of disputation is claimed to become ingrained in them. They do not, then, have to focus on being optimistic, but rather optimism becomes automatic and leads to a more positive life for the child.

Applications

If learnable, optimism techniques could be practical in life. They are used today in many areas such as parenting, business, therapy, and education.

Business would benefit from more optimistic workers, as they are more successful. Seligman’s focus in business is on ‘the personal wall’ that is each individual worker’s set-point of discouragement. Putting the ABCDE model into practice attempts to allow workers to respond to this ‘wall’ with a readiness to conquer rather than to feel dejected. The Attributional Style Questionnaire is often used to measure optimism of job candidates during the interview process by asking the participant to write down causes for situational failures. Participants attributions may be used to help understand if the candidate will be a high or low performer in his/her projected role based on his level of optimism.

Learned optimism has been used to combat depression during cognitive behavioural therapy. This is based on the idea that patients may be depressed in part because they have a pessimistic outlook. Rather than perceiving adversity as a constant thing that cannot be overcome, and taking personal blame for that adversity, patients come out of cognitive behavioural therapy with the belief that they can control how they respond to adversity. A shift toward optimism is a shift away from depression.

Criticism

Martin Seligman’s learned optimism now orients the US armed services’ psychological stance. Keith Ablow, a frequent guest on Fox News, blamed this in part for the actions of the US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan. He wrote (under the Fox News banner) that soldiers are “taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged, under the banner of ‘resilience.’ It’s a bad, bad idea that pushes soldiers to ‘fake good’ until they fall apart. And, then, the system continues to withhold needed care, particularly of a psychotherapeutic, insight-oriented variety.”

What is Learned Helplessness?

Introduction

Learned helplessness is behaviour exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused from the subject’s acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented. Upon exhibiting such behaviour, the subject was said to have acquired learned helplessness.

Over the past few decades, neuroscience has provided insight into learned helplessness and shown that the original theory actually had it backwards: the brain’s default state is to assume that control is not present, and the presence of “helpfulness” is what is actually learned.

In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy; the individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

Refer to Learned Optimism.

Foundation of Research and Theory

Early Experiments

American psychologist Martin Seligman initiated research on learned helplessness in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania as an extension of his interest in depression. This research was later expanded through experiments by Seligman and others. One of the first was an experiment by Seligman & Maier:

  • In Part 1 of this study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses.
    • Group 1 dogs were simply put in a harness for a period of time and were later released.
    • Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs”.
    • Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever.
    • Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock.
    • To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was their paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop.
    • Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was “inescapable”.
  • In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus (a chamber containing two rectangular compartments divided by a barrier a few inches high).
    • All of the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side.
    • The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock.
    • Most of the Group 3 dogs – which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks – simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked.

In a second experiment later that year with new groups of dogs, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that, instead of learned helplessness, the Group 3 dogs failed to avert in the second part of the test because they had learned some behaviour that interfered with “escape”. To prevent such interfering behaviour, Group 3 dogs were immobilised with a paralysing drug (curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. When tested as before in Part 2, these Group 3 dogs exhibited helplessness as before. This result serves as an indicator for the ruling out of the interference hypothesis.

From these experiments, it was thought that there was to be only one cure for helplessness. In Seligman’s hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs would need to take in order to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start wilfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.

Later Experiments

Later experiments have served to confirm the depressive effect of feeling a lack of control over an aversive stimulus. For example, in one experiment, humans performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. Those who could use a switch to turn off the noise rarely bothered to do so, yet they performed better than those who could not turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract the noise effect. In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stressful stimuli exhibited changes in the excitability of certain neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit this neural effect and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.

Expanded Theories

Research has found that a human’s reaction to feeling a lack of control differs both between individuals and between situations, i.e. learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalises across situations. Such variations are not explained by the original theory of learned helplessness, and an influential view is that such variations depend on an individual’s attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), and are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

Bernard Weiner proposed a detailed account of the attributional approach to learned helplessness. His attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality:

  • A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts.
    • A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation.
  • A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time.
    • An unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time.
  • An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors,
    • while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

Research has shown that those with an internal, stable, and global attributional style for negative events can be more at risk for a depressive reaction to failure experiences.

Neurobiological Perspective

Research has shown that increased 5-HT (serotonin) activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behaviour include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus has also been observed during states of helplessness.

In the article, “Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain”, Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner discuss how exercise might prevent stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression. They show evidence that running wheel exercise prevents learned helplessness behaviours in rats. They suggest that the amount of exercise may not be as important as simply exercising at all. The article also discusses the neurocircuitry of learned helplessness, the role of serotonin (or 5-HT), and the exercise-associated neural adaptations that may contribute to the stress-resistant brain. However, the authors finally conclude that:

“The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of this effect, however, remain unknown. Identifying the mechanisms by which exercise prevents learned helplessness could shed light on the complex neurobiology of depression and anxiety and potentially lead to novel strategies for the prevention of stress-related mood disorders”.

Health Implications

People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They experience stress, they often show disruption of emotions demonstrating passivity or aggressiveness, and they can also have difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behaviour, causing them, for example, to neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment.

Depression

Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have found a strong correlation between depression-like symptoms and learned helplessness in laboratory animals.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style often suffer from depression. They tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic style also tend to have weakened immune systems, having not only increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g. cold, fever) and major illness (e.g. heart attack, cancers), but also poorer recovery from health problems.

Social Impact

Learned helplessness can be a factor in a wide range of social situations.

  • In emotionally abusive relationships, the victim often develops learned helplessness.
    • This occurs when the victim confronts or tries to leave the abuser only to have the abuser dismiss or trivialise the victim’s feelings, pretend to care but not change, or impede the victim from leaving.
  • The motivational effect of learned helplessness is often seen in the classroom.
    • Students who repeatedly fail may conclude that they are incapable of improving their performance, and this attribution keeps them from trying to succeed, which results in increased helplessness, continued failure, loss of self-esteem and other social consequences.
  • Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness.
    • For example, when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
  • Those who are extremely shy or anxious in social situations may become passive due to feelings of helplessness.
    • Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, which tends to reinforce the passivity.
  • Aging individuals may respond with helplessness to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems.
    • This may cause them to neglect their medical care, financial affairs, and other important needs.
  • According to Cox et al., Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by inescapable prejudice (i.e. “deprejudice”).
    • Thus: “Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks.”
  • According to Ruby K. Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, treatment of the poor can lead to a cycle of poverty, a culture of poverty, and generational poverty.
    • This type of learned helplessness is passed from parents to children.
    • People who embrace this mentality feel there is no way to escape poverty and so one must live in the moment and not plan for the future, trapping families in poverty.

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable to those entrenched. However, there are various ways to reduce or prevent it. When induced in experimental settings, learned helplessness has been shown to resolve itself with the passage of time. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Cognitive therapy can be used to show people that their actions do make a difference and bolster their self-esteem.

Extensions

Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.

The UK educationalist Phil Bagge describes it as a learning avoidance strategy caused by prior failure and the positive reinforcement of avoidance such as asking teachers or peers to explain and consequently do the work. It shows itself as sweet helplessness or aggressive helplessness often seen in challenging problem solving contexts, such as learning to use a new computer programming language.

The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer.

Emergence under Torture

Studies on learned helplessness served as the basis for developing enhanced interrogation techniques. In CIA interrogation manuals, learned helplessness is characterised as “apathy” which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a “debility-dependency-dread” state in the subject, “If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”