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Learned helplessness vs. learned industriousness

Updated: Apr 5

The Charger Account Editorial Staff Apr. 3, 2024

Two dogs are placed in a pair of harnesses, each hidden from the other. As part of an experiment, the dogs are shocked randomly—but one of the dogs can stop the shocks by pressing a lever in its harness. The other dog is given no opportunity to stop the shocks on its own. To this “helpless” dog, the shocks seem to cease randomly, while in reality, they stop when the other dog pushes its lever.

Each dog is then transferred to another kind of harness, which is divided into two sections by a low wall. The dogs then continue to be shocked randomly—but they can escape the shocks by jumping over the wall. When American psychologist Martin Seligman performed this experiment in 1967, he found that the dogs who were able to stop the shocks with their lever attempted the jump, while the “helpless” dogs tended not to make any escape effort despite having the ability to.

This experiment was the root of the theory of learned helplessness, which states that individuals conditioned to believe they have no control over a situation may be discouraged from making an effort to change any future situations for the better. Uncontrollable negative events result in a perceived lack of control, which in turn results in helpless behavior—a lack of effort to improve. In the context of education, learned helplessness creates a negative feedback cycle where students who experienced some early academic failure feel that they are unable to succeed. This makes them less likely to put effort into schoolwork, decreasing academic performance and culminating in subpar motivation as well as competence.

However, learned helplessness is not the only way we can condition ourselves. University of Delaware psychology professor Robert Eisenberger developed the theory of learned industriousness, or the idea that rewarding hard work creates a positive feedback loop of higher effort and higher performance—in other words, the opposite of learned helplessness. According to Eisenberger, when one works hard to achieve a positive result, the effort becomes associated with reward rather than difficulty, and making an effort to achieve a goal becomes a reward in and of itself. Thus, when we work hard on one task, we are more inclined to work hard on others, increasing our likelihood of success in all cases.

To shift our mindsets from learned helplessness to industriousness, we can set goals that are challenging yet attainable to achieve through small steps that can foster a sense of accomplishment. Developing methods to make learning itself engaging can also link positive interest to hard work, and high levels of reinforcement on vigorous tasks can develop a growth mindset.

By being aware of how our perspectives change our learned mindsets, we can effectively perpetuate a cycle of growth.

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