Sample Literature Review Paper on Learned Helplessness


Learned helplessness is experienced unconsciously by humans and animals subjected to a variety of conditions. Past studies have shown that factors such as frustrations, prolonged deprivation and stress result in the development of learned helplessness. Most experiments on learned helplessness entail exposure of participants to certain conditions in which they have no control over. The participants then show certain learning deficits when exposed to other tasks in different conditions. While many experiments have been conducted to help ascertain the stake and task dependence of learned helplessness, there are still some gaps in literature that are yet to be filled. One of such is discussed by Boyd (1982), who through one of similar experiments, determined that learned helplessness contradicted the behavioral persistence concept that has also been widely cited as the basis of learned helplessness.

Conceptualization of Learned Helplessness

Various experiments conducted over the years have shown that individuals subjected to conditions in which they have no control, are most likely to develop learned helplessness. According to Lieder, Goodman and Huys (2013), argues that in spite of the diverse experiments, the core of learned helplessness is generalization. Whether this opinion is accurate or not, depends on the perspective from which the phenomenon is tested. Johnson (2009) conducted a study in which students were tested on their ability to focus on a stressful anagram after a goal oriented dot probe exercise. An experimental method was used in which students were divided into two groups. A portion of the 109 participants were required to attend to a dot probe test with the goal of identifying and focusing on happy faces only while ignoring the sad faces The other portion of participants were given no goals in the dot probe exercise. Those with the goal reported better performance in a stressful anagram thereafter while those with no goal performed worse. Those who performed better in the face identification exercise were able to persist more in the anagram exercise compared to those who performed averagely in the dot probe exercise. This is an indication of learned helplessness.

The findings from the experiment by Boyd (1982) are somewhat similar to those by Lieder et al. (2013). Boyd (1982) also conducted an experiment in which college students were exposed to loud noises. The loud noise was supposed to serve as an uncontrollable circumstance, which was expected to result in learned helplessness. Performance deficits were reported relative to no- preexposure groups. Through an analysis of the findings, it was established that the performance deficits were linked directly to response – outcome relationships established during the uncontrollable preexposure. While the findings run parallel to those by Lieder et al. (2013), the interpretation made by Boyd (1982) was that the findings were similar to the behavioral persistence model developed by Amsel and in contradiction to the model for learned helplessness.

Boyes and French (2010) examined the link between stress, coping and neuroticism within the context of anagram solving exercises. The objective of the researchers was to determine the factors influencing performance in anagram solving and whether they are functions of personality or external factors. Individuals with higher stress levels showed lower capacity to solve anagrams and were also more likely to appraise the task negatively. They also reported low self esteem and low moods. Moreover, their level of engagement was more on emotion focused activities than on task oriented activities. Characteristics such as low moods, low self esteem and negative emotions are attributed to individuals with higher levels of learned helplessness compared to those with lower levels (Jain, Mal and Yadav, 1989; Alloy et al., 1984).  In their conclusion, Boyes and French (2010) opined that the anagram solving exercise can be considered a promising stressor for laboratory use. This opinion could also be drawn from the potential for many studies to use the anagram as a stressor, as in the study by Mal et al. (1989). Lieder et al. (2013) also mentioned other features of learned helplessness including lack of appetitive learning and escape deficits among others. An observation of these features can help to recognize distinctions between those who portray learned helplessness and those who do not, in different circumstances.

Mal, Jain and Yadav (1989) examined the impacts of prolonged deprivation on learned helplessness. The objective of the study was to determine whether prolonged deprivation contributed significantly to the development of learned helplessness through an experimental design in which 104 participants were issued with an unsolvable block design task. The participants had to complete an attributable questionnaire prior to engagement in the block design task. The questionnaire was aimed at exploring the level of deprivation among the participants. Participants who reported high deprivation reported greater helplessness compared to those who experienced low deprivation. Females also showed greater helplessness compared to the male students. The results showed that learned helplessness varies from one gender to another and also according to the level of deprivation.  Other studies such as that by Wang, Zhang and Zhang (2017), also examined other factors such as dysfunctional attitudes and their relationships with learned helplessness. Wang et al. (2017) showed that men with dysfunctional attitudes were more likely to portray learned helplessness than those with functional attitudes.

Although the learned helplessness hypothesis links various factors to the concept of learned helplessness, it has been re formulated and criticized through the years based on different studies. In humans, the theory is linked to two problems. For one, it does not differentiate between cases of universally uncontrollable outcomes and those in which outcomes are only uncontrollable for specific people. This feature is described as indistinguishable universal and personal helplessness. Secondly, the hypothesis does not explain the differences between specific and general helplessness or between acute and chronic helplessness. Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale (1978) proposed that a reformulation was necessary to resolve the inadequacies of the learned helplessness hypothesis. However, none of the reviewed studies has explored these differences significantly.  Reformulation of the hypothesis of human helplessness resulted in an explanation of its implications for depression. Landgraf et al. (2015) explored the use of the learned helplessness paradigm as a model for explaining depression in animals.  With this explanation comes the concept of trans-situationality, which is explained as the transferability of helplessness from one situation to another. Trans- situationality was also affirmed by Nobrega, Hedayatmofidi, & Lobo (2016), who used mice as their test subjectcs.


Learned helplessness as a phenomenon has been linked to different variables and duly experimented based on those factors. Reviewed studies have shown that some of the factors that result in or influence differences in learned helplessness include prolonged deprivation, frustrations and stress among others. The theory of learned helplessness spans different applications across the academic and also in health impacts. Various concepts are however yet to be explored in the context of universal versus personal helplessness or specific versus general helplessness. The reviewed studies still possess indications of this limitation and subsequently transfer it to the results. Nonetheless, lack of distinction or specificity can be ignored on the basis that generalization is the core of the learned helplessness theory.


Abramson, L.Y., Seligman, M.E.P. & Teasdale, J.D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49- 74. Retrieved from

Alloy, L.B., Peterson, C., Abramson, L.Y. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1984). Attributional style and the generality of learned helplessness.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 681-687. Retrieved from

Boyd, T.L. (1982). Learned helplessness in humans: A frustration produced response pattern. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(2), 738- 752.

Boyes, M.E. & French, D.J. (2010). Neuroticism, stress and coping in the context of an anagram solving task. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 380- 385.

Johnson, D.R. (2009). Goal- directed attentional deployment to emotional faces and individual differences in emotional regulation. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 8- 13.

Landgraf, D., Long, J., Der-Avakian, A., Streets, M. & Welsh, D.K. (2015). Dissociation of learned helplessness and fear conditioning in mice: A mouse model of depression. PLoS ONE, 10(4). Retrieved from

Lieder, F., Goodman, N.D. & Huys, Q.J.M. (2013). Learned helplessness and generalization. Stanford Papers. Retrieved from

Mal, S., Jain, U. & Yadav, K.S. (1989). Effects of prolonged deprivation on learned helplessness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 130(2), 191 – 197.

Nobrega, J.N., Hedayatmofidi, P.S. & Lobo, D.S. (2016). Strong interactions between learned helplessness and risky decision-making in a rat gambling model. Scientific Reports, 6(37304). Retrieved from

Wang, C., Zhang, K. & Zhang, M. (2017). Dysfunctional attitudes, learned helplessness and coping styles among men with substance use disorders. Social Behavior and Personality, 45(2), 269- 280.