The theory on learned helplessness has been debunked—here’s what that means for leaders

by | Jun 24, 2022 | Blog | 0 comments

The next time you want to say someone’s afflicted with learned helplessness, stop. One of the original researchers who named the theory debunked his own work a few years ago!

The revised theory is that we don’t learn helplessness. Instead, we instinctively shut down when we’re exposed to adverse conditions. And we can overcome this state.That’s from the scientist, Dr. Stephen F. Maier, who worked on the original learned helplessness research back in the 1960s when he was a graduate student in psychology. After he earned his Ph.D., he continued his studies, switching to neuroscience. Examining neuroscience from a neural lens rather than strictly behavioral changed his perspective on learned helplessness.

Dr. Maier’s neuroscience studies showed that the brain’s biological response to bad conditions is to freeze to protect us. This passive, defensive strategy is hardwired in us. Better to stop and try to endure the pain until it ends than take bigger risks. Yet, the brain can override this reflex by switching from the instinctive helplessness feelings to a state of learned control.

What are the implications of this? We need to give ourselves and others grace whenever we’re in an adverse situation. It’s natural to freeze and feel anxious. Yet, we also need to remember that we can overcome our anxiety, passivity, and powerless through tools that boost our confidence, power and sense of control. These tools should vary depending on the situation and the individual since each person’s brain is unique.

This story is about more than the evolution of a scientific theory. It’s about how we all need to pay attention, connect the dots and double-check or even triple-check our assumptions to ensure we’re advancing rather than stalling or falling behind. For more about what this means for you and other leaders, check out my article published on June 21, The theory on learned helplessness has been debunked–here’s what that means for leaders.


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