Article 43


Sunday, July 14, 2013

American Sheep


Why Are Americans So Passive?
The rest of the world is rioting in the face of massive inequality and injustice.
Have we absorbed the oppressor’s consciousness?

By RJ Eskow
Blog For Our Future
July 12, 2013

From the first breaths of life to the last, our lives are being STOLEN OUT FROM UNDER US. From infant care and early education to Social Security and Medicare, the dominant economic ideology is demanding more lifelong sacrifices from the vulnerable to appease the gods of wealth.

Middle-class wages are stagnant. UNEMPLOYMENT is stalled at record levels. College education is leading to debt servitude and job insecurity. Millions of unemployed Americans have essentially been ABANDONED by their GOVERNMENT.  Poverty is SOARING. Bankers break the law with impunity, are bailed out, and go on breaking the law, richer than they were before.

And yet, bizarrely, the only Americans who seem to be seething with anger are the BENEFICIARIES of this economic INJUSTICE - the wealthiest and most privileged among us.  But those who are suffering seem strangely passive.

As long as they stay that way, there will be no movement to repair these injustices. And the more these injustices are allowed to persist, the harder it will be to end them.

Where the hell is the outrage? And how can we start some?

John and Paul

PAUL KRUGMAN RUMINATED about inflation-free unemployment the other day, and he was feeling pretty grim. Krugman is frustrated that clear prescriptions for this kind of economy - prescriptions born in John Maynard Keynes day - aren’t being followed. What John proposed then, Paul’s proposing now.

But he’s not optimistic.  “We can probably have high unemployment and stable prices in Europe and America for a very long time,” writes Krugman, “and all the wise heads will insist that its all structural, and nothing can be done until the public accepts drastic cuts in the safety net.”

One source for Krugman’s pessimism is the extensive political science research showing that “the level of unemployment matters hardly at all for elections; all that matters is the rate of change in the months leading up to the election.”

Krugman concludes that ”HIGH UNEMPLOYMENT COULD BECOME THE THE ACCEPTED NEW NORMAL”, and worries that “we"ll come to accept a more or less PERMANENT DEPRESSION” as the norm adding that ”we could suffer endless, gratuitous suffering, yet the political and policy elite would feel no need to change its ways.”

Quiet in the streets

He’s right. A number of studies have linked political participation with economic conditions, typically with results like those Krugman describes.  But that doesn’t explain why Brazilians took to the streets in such large numbers recently.

A majority of Brazilians believe that their economy’s improving, according to a recent Pew survey. 59 percent of Brazilians rate their economy positively and 74 percent say their personal financial situation is good.  By contrast, the same organizations most recent US polling showed that only 46 percent of Americans said they believe the economy’s getting better, while 50 percent think its getting worse.

The polling says that Brazilian political unrest is driven by a divergence in goals and priorities between political leaders and the population, triggered by poor public services, bus fare increases, and the cost of hosting the World Cup.

A similar divergence of priorities exists in this country.  Washington’s been focused on deficit reduction, while the public wants more job creation and economic growth.  But AMERICANS are quiescent.

US voter turnout is extremely low when compared to other developed nations, even though we rank among the highest in terms of income inequality. And other forms of political expression are also under-used. THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT was originally very popular, for example, but most people were easily persuaded to abandon it and return to a state of quiet desperation.


Wealth inequity and other economic injustices are the product of deliberate policy choices - in taxation, Social Security, health care, financial regulation, education, and a number of other policy areas.  So why aren’t Americans taking action?

The change theories Krugman mentioned don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, it’s not true that the lives of the majority are frozen in an ugly stasis. Conditions continue to become objectively worse for the great majority of Americans. But these ongoing changes in actual wages, in employment, in social mobility and wealth equity - have received very little media attention or meaningful political debate.

Its not that things aren’t changing. Its that people don’t know they’re changing. And without that knowledge the public becomes a canary in a coalmine, only aware of its declining oxygen supply when it keels over and dies.

It’s an almost classic state of alienation, in which people may be acutely aware of their own increasing difficulties (although sometimes they can be numb to that as well) but experience them in a state of isolation. That turns the anger inward, leading to CRIPPLING REACTIONS like guilt and despair. And repeated individual failures - failures made increasingly likely in a skewed system - LEAD TO A SENSE of LEARNED HELPLESSNESS.

The Radical Rich

Interestingly, the change = “political pressure” theory helps explain the rage of the “radical rich” who despite their almost unprecedented lives of wealth and privilege - are articulating an anger which seems at first to be inexplicable. But they, unlike the vast majority, are experiencing perceptible (if minor) changes.

No current policy proposals would substantially affect their historic levels of wealth and privilege. But some Democratic policies would slightly discommode the ultra-wealthy, and conservative forces have been shrewd enough to trumpet that fact far and wide in a tone of barely suppressed hysteria.

The wealthy have already seen a cultural change, as the Occupy movement led to previously-unheard public criticisms of their riches and political influence. That helps explain today’s seemingly paradoxical political situation, in which the beleaguered majority accepts the injustices heaped upon them while coddled and ultra-wealthy Americans erupt in fury.

The Alienators

The media has failed to tell the story of our broken economy. The two-party system is failing, too, as corporate forces complete their corruption of the GOP and seize an ever-increasing chunk of the Democratic Party.

That’s one of the reasons why voter turnout may not be the best indicator of political awareness. Even pronounced financial hardship wont result in increased turnout or participation in electoral politics if neither party is clearly articulating the majority’s needs or actively fighting for its interests.

Many politicians and pundits have also embraced the “structural unemployment” argument which says people have the WRONG SKILLS for the economy of today and tomorrow. But they told us the same in the 1960s, the 1970s

In fact, they’ve said it for the last fifty years.

And yet technology jobs were down in last weeks jobs report. “Structural unemployment” is another way of telling you IT’S YOUR FAULT if you don’t have a job. It’s a lie.

The Exploiters Within

Even worse, decades of “Pimp My Ride"/"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” acculturation have idealized the wealthy and have left the majority with a subliminal message: If you’re struggling economically, it’s your fault.

The leftist Brazilian educator Paolo Freire spoke of internalizing the oppressor consciousness: internalizing the values of those who colonize, rule, and exploit you, accepting their distorted, Matrix-like view of the world as an objective reality.

This can lead to agony, as well as continued exploitation. When I first began writing about illegal foreclosures in 2009 and 2010 before bank fraud became common knowledge - I began receiving dozens of emails from bank victims saying, in essence, I thought it was “my fault” and I thought I was the “only one.” Some of them had contemplated suicide, which is the tragic end point of an “oppressor consciousness” within.

(I published some of those emails, with permission, in a piece called Letters From Foreclosure Hell.)

Books and films like The Pursuit of Happyness have delivered the message that anyone whos struggling economically hasn’t been brave enough, bold enough, or smart enough, while movements like the Tea Party have mocked underwater homeowners and other victims of Wall Street fraud and predation.

(That movement was born in a spontaneous demonstration at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange led by financial snake-oil salesman Rick Santelli, in which pampered and taxpayer-rescued traders mocked Wall Street homeowner/victims as Losers! Losers!)

The last two Democratic Presidents have tried to have it both ways, exalting, deregulating, and pampering the wealthy while speaking the language of justice. That has weakened the Democratic brand and undermined public confidence in government, while failing to resolve our underlying economic problems. The rhetoric of consensus and compromise CONTRIBUTED to the DECADES-LONG rise in inequality.

As Paolo Friere said:  “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Action Plan

So what do we do?

1. Expand our avenues of political expression: First, we need to remind ourselves that electoral politics is not the only productive avenue for political ACTIVISM - that we need strong and independent VOICES AND MOVEMENTS.

2. Refuse to let politicians use social issues to exploit us economically: We also need to reject the exploitation and manipulation of progressive values by corporatist politicians who use social issues like gay marriage and reproductive rights exactly the way Republicans do to manipulate their own base into ignoring their own economic interests. Politicians who don’t take a stand on economic issues should be rejected, up and down the ticket.

3. Explain what is changing - and contrast what is with what should be: We need to do a better job of explaining what’s happening, so that we can make people aware of the harmful changes taking place all around them.

And it’s not just about change: It’s also about contrast - between economic conditions as they are, and conditions as they should be and could be, IF WE CAN FIND THE POLITICAL WILL.

4. Expand the vocabulary of the possible: The “learned helplessness” outlook says “the rich and powerful always win; we don’t stand a chance.” History tells us otherwise.  From the American Revolution to the breaking up of the railroads, from Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting to FDR’s New Deal, from Ike’s Social Security and labor union expansion to LBJ’s Great Society victories, we need to remind ourselves of what we’ve accomplished under similar conditions.

5. Tell stories: And we need to tell stories - human stories. That’s why Tuesday night’s Bill Moyers special on PBS is so important. TWO AMERICAN FAMILIES tells the story of a white family and an African-American family in Milwaukee over two decades. Their stories bring home, in a personal way, the agony that has accompanied the destruction of middle-class jobs a destruction that only happened because politicians made conscious policy decisions.



On The Political Economy Of Permanent Stagnation

By Paul Krugman
NY Times
July 5, 2013

I’ve been having a strange reaction to recent news about economic policy. Stuff is happening: the Fed bungled its communications, doing its bit to undermine modest economic progress; the European Commission is sorta kinda relaxing its demands for austerity; the Bank of England appears to have issued forward guidance that it’s going to issue forward guidance; and so on. But with the possible exception of Abenomics, its all pretty small-bore stuff.

And that’s disappointing. We had what felt like an epic intellectual debate over austerity economics, which ended, insofar as such debates ever end, with a stunning victory for the anti-austerity side and hardly anything changed in the real world. Meanwhile, the pain caucus has found a new target, inventing dubious reasons for monetary tightening. And mass unemployment goes on.

So how does this end? Here’s a depressing thought: maybe it doesn’t.

True, something could come along - a new technology that induces lots of investment, a war, or maybe just a sufficient accumulation of use, decay, and obsolescence, as Keynes put it. But at this point I have real doubts about whether there will be events that force policy action.

First of all, I think many of us used to believe that sustained high unemployment would lead to substantial, perhaps accelerating deflation and that this would push policymakers into doing something forceful. Itגs now clear, however, that the relationship between inflation and unemployment flattens out at low inflation rates. We can probably have high unemployment and stable prices in Europe and America for a very long time and all the wise heads will insist that itגs all structural, and nothing can be done until the public accepts drastic cuts in the safety net.

But won’t there be an ever-growing demand from the public for action? Actually, that’s not at all clear. While there is growing “austerity fatigue” in Europe, and this might provoke a crisis, the overwhelming result from U.S. political studies is that the level of unemployment matters hardly at all for elections; all that matters is the rate of change in the months leading up to the election. In other words, high unemployment could become accepted as the new normal, politically as well as in economic analysis.

I guess what I’m saying is that I worry that a more or less permanent depression could end up simply becoming accepted as the way things are, that we could suffer endless, gratuitous suffering, yet the political and policy elite would feel no need to change its ways.

Oh, and have a nice day.



Learned Helplessness

By Economists View
May 6, 2012

I talked a bit yesterday about the POLITICAL HURDLES standing in the way of more help for job creation, something that is desperately needed if we want to avoid the permanent scars of high unemployment. Robin Wells has more on the hurdles, in this case “learned helplessness” (though I might have called it something like “convenient claims of helplessness"):

In weakened economy, policymakers give in to learned helplessness, by Robin Wells, Commentary, Yet another disappointing statistic today from the US labor market only 115,000 jobs added in April, barely enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising given the growth in population… While not necessarily a sign that the economy is headed for another turn downward, April’s job numbers signal a repeat of the pattern seen in 2011 - a recovery that is halting, unpredictable, and agonizingly slow. ...

And it’s not surprising given the continued heavy drag on the economy from high levels of household debt, high oil prices, and significant budget cutbacks by state and local governments. Moreover, the longer the economy limps along, the harder it appears to be for policymakers to accept that another outcome is possible. ... Learned helplessness sets in.

One could not have asked for a clearer example of learned helplessness than Ben Bernanke’s recent press conference, where he labeled calls for further Fed stimulus “reckless” and appeals for a higher inflation target “irresponsible” because it would, in his view, sacrifice its commitment to a 2% inflation target. Higher inflation helps stimulate a depressed economy… But that is just one example of the implicit deference given by policymakers to views that ignore the plight of the unemployed.

Another variant of this mindset is the appeals to “structural unemployment” as the problem. ... [W]e are not in normal times, and appeals to structural unemployment is a red herring that only serves to distract from what focusing on pushing for we can do. It’s a travesty given the state of public education in the US that we’ve laid off hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers; rehiring them would not only help the economy but it would also improve our long-run growth potential. Ditto for hiring laid-off construction workers to repair falling-down bridges and schools and repairing broken roads.

Perhaps the most maddening area of willful policy blindness is failure to address the foreclosure crisis. Obama’s own inspector general has roundly criticized the treasury department for its glacial approach in helping underwater homeowners and its unwillingness to pressure the big banks - recipients of Tarp bailouts, mind you - to help. ...

So where does this leave us? First, we need to understand that a “slow bleed” of the economy - chronically high but not catastrophic rates of unemployment, low levels of private investment, and deteriorating public infrastructure - are nonetheless devastating. Many workers will lead permanently diminished careers, and the economy’s long-run productive capacity may be permanently lowered. Second, recognize that it is all too likely that policymakers will fail to advocate for policies to get this economy going. Learned helpless is, unfortunately, a comfortable state of affairs.

Finally, that leaves us with the distinct possibility that without a political sea-change in favor of more progressive policies, we have reached the limits of what is possible. It’s up to US voters to overcome their habit of learned helplessness as well.



Learned Helplessness
Why bother?

So many bad things beyond your control have happened, you are overwhelmed and have stopped trying to help yourself. Your vitality and zest are gone, you are listless and discouraged, and you believe that nothing you do even matters. You have lost the struggle and learned to become helpless, and you are now passive and complacent even though you could take action to help yourself. Perhaps rethinking how you explain these events to yourself can help you cope better.


HelplessInformally, learned helpless can be thought of as:

Giving up,
Expectations of future noncontingencyoutcomes no longer depend on actions,
Believing: It won’t matter what I do,
Believing: I have no control over the outcome.
The belief that your actions are futile.
Believing you are incompetent.

Learned helplessness was first studied and described as an animal’s failure to escape traumatic electric shock. Although learned helplessness was first studied in laboratory animals, here we are discussing the theory as it applies to people. The theory describes what happens when a person comes to believe they have no control over their situation and that whatever they do is futile. As a result, the person will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful, or damaging situation, even when they actually do have the ability to improve the circumstances. To qualify as learned helplessness, a phenomenon has to meet all three of these conditions:

The person has to become inappropriately passive, and
This change has to follow exposure to prolonged uncontrollable events, and
There is a change in the way the person thinks about their ability to control similar future events.

Uncontrollable events disrupt peoples’ subsequent problem solving skills. How people choose to explain the causes of these bad events affect their response in a variety of ways, including motivation, emotion, cognition, and behavior. People tend to define the extent of their helplessnessחtheir lack of control or incompetencyas being pervasive or narrow, short term or long term.

Related Terms

The terms complacency, apathy, discouraged, demoralized, and futility often describe thoughts and behavior that may result from learned helplessness. The opposite of learned helplessness is learned mastery, learned optimism, and hardiness. Controlחthe ability to change things through voluntary actionis the opposite of helplessness.

Origins and Benefits

Beating your head against the wall wastes time and energy and is potentially harmful. Persistent attempts to control the uncontrollable are futile. Hope has its limits; wishful thinking is not a sufficient strategy. Knowing what we can change and what we cannot and knowing when to give up frees us to pursue productive activities. Remaining passive allows us to conserve energy when the evidence tells us there is simply nothing else for us to do. Adopting a passive stance provides us with the דserenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Stress and Control
There is considerable evidence that the uncontrollable adverse events that characterize learned helplessness cause stress, while similar but controlled adverse events do not. Several neural and neurochemical changes occur in animals exposed to uncontrollable shocks that do not occur when the animal can control the shocks. Levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine are reduced in rats subjected to inescapable electric shocks but not in rats exposed to shock that could be avoided or escaped. Rats exposed to inescapable shock show decreased brain levels of Gamma-amino butyric Acid (GABA) while rats exposed to escapable shock do not. The analgesic stateԗsuch as the response to morphine where the organism is less responsive to painful stimulusis induced in rats by uncontrollable, but not controllable shock.

Studies of helplessness in people show changes in biological markers that usually indicate increased arousal, consistent with increased fear or anxiety.

The conclusion is that these uncontrollable adverse events result in considerable stress, however similar controllable events do not. Learning that the stressor is uncontrollable may increase fear, or learning that it is controllable may reduce fear. Control is a form of coping that prevents some forms of stress.

Explanatory Styles:

When important things happen people tend to explain what caused the outcome. The way we explain misfortune can be analyzed along two dimensions known as locus and generality. Locus of control refers to the tendency to take personal responsibility for the outcome (internal) or to attribute the outcome to external events (external). It may also be called personalization. Generality refers to considering the outcome as an isolated one-time event or as a permanent and pervasive condition. Generality has the dimensions of time and scope. Causes lasting for only a limited time are called דunstable and those lasing for a long time are referred to as ԓstable or ԓpermanent. Limited scope is called ԓspecific and general scope is called ԓglobal or ԓpervasive. Consider these four different ways of explaining why you did poorly on a test:


I did not study effectively this time for this test. 
Specific Time & Scope
This test was unfair.

I’m never any good at studying anything.
General Time & Scope
Tests are unfair.

Individuals have characteristic explanatory styles they habitually use to explain why things happen. Attributing causes to internal specific factors explains outcomes in terms of behaviors; “I made a mistake this time.” The bad outcome is attributed to a single isolated instance of bad behavior. This is an optimistic explanatory style for bad outcomes because your behavior can be modified to best suit specific events. Attributing causes to internal general factors explains outcomes in terms of character traits. This is pessimistic for bad outcomes because character traits remain largely constant over time. The pessimistic viewpoint says: “The bad outcome occurred because I am a bad person now and always.”

Now consider the possible explanations when something good happens. Here are four different ways of explaining why you made money when a stock you bought increased in value:


I was skillful in choosing this stock this time.
Specific Time & Scope
I am generally skillful, especially with financial matters. 

This company was well run for this period of time.
General Time & Scope
The economy is doing well. I got lucky this time.

Here the optimistic person takes full credit when things go well, attributing the good outcome to internal rather than external factors. Attributing the good fortune to your generally good character, rather than specific behavior in this case is especially optimistic. In contrast, the pessimistic person attributes good outcomes to external events, including uncharacteristically good luck.

In summary, the optimist takes broad credit for good outcomes and narrow responsibility for bad outcomes. The pessimist blames himself broadly for bad outcomes and attributes good outcomes to external factors.

A reliable and validated self-report questionnaire, the Attributional Style QuestionnaireExternal Link (ASQ) can be used to assess an individual’s explanatory style. It provides a score that is rated on a scale running from “very optimistic” to “very pessimistic.”

Fortunately attribute training can often teach people reassess their thinking, recognize and correct errors in their thinking, and adopt a more appropriate optimistic explanatory style. This is described below in the section dispute Pessimistic Explanations.

Both Views are Important:

Optimism and pessimism describe two extremes of a continuum of viewpoints used for assessing and extending uncertain, ambiguous, or conflicting information and making estimates, forecasts, and decisions. Some situations are best met by optimism, others by pessimism.


Takes broad personal credit for good outcomes. Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go well.

Attributes bad outcomes to external factors and rare circumstances, or to narrowly isolated mistakes. Adopts an external locus of control when things go bad.

Fuels the aspirations of hope. Sustains the effort and persistence required to overcome obstacles. Inspires others. Allows us to dream and see possibilities. Seeks to advance. Bold.

Expansive; seize the possibilities. Exploration, adventure, discovery. Discounts or dismisses risks. The engine that moves us forward.

Recover quickly from setbacks. Undaunted by defeat.

Unlikely to suffer from depression.

Unwarranted or excessive optimism can result in unrealistic plans, recklessness, risk taking, egotism, aggrandizing, and avoiding responsibility. It can also result in an unearned or undeserved sense of pride.

Optimists landed a man on the moon


Attributes good outcomes to external factors or luck. Adopts an external locus of control when things go well.

Blames himself broadly for bad outcomes. Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go bad.

Promotes caution, critical thinking, skepticism, and defensive measures. Sustains a keen sense of reality. Highlights problems. Seeks to protect. Timid.

Conservative; protect what we have. Concerned with safety. Highlights and emphasizes risks. The brakes that keep us from crashing.

Recover slowly, if at all, from setbacks. Wallow in defeat.

Likely to suffer from depression.

Unwarranted or excessive pessimism can result in inaction, depression, or other inappropriate passive behavior. It can also result in unwarranted fear, anxiety, guilt or shame.

Avoid the polarization and false dichotomy of arguing optimism vs. pessimism. Instead choose, realism; the viewpoint that is supported by the best available information, estimation, and judgment.

Explanatory Styles are Learned

Research shows that explanatory style is primarily learned rather than inherited. Children learn how to explain bad things from three main sources. The first source a child uses for learning how to explain adversity is to model how their mothers (or other primary care giver) explains adverse events. If the mother blames herself or the child broadly when bad things happen, the child will notice and learn this pessimistic style. The second source a child uses to learn their own explanatory style are the adults that care for, discipline, teach, and criticize the child. These people include teachers, parents, and other authority figures. When these adults blame the child’s character, personality, or self whenever bad things happen, the child quickly learns to blame themselves using personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for why thing go wrong. The final powerful teacher is tragic life crises. If children experience a crisis, such as a house fire, divorced parents, abuse, or extreme poverty, they notice if these tragedies get resolved after a period of time or if they persist forever. If the crisis gets resolved quickly, then the child learns to believe that adversity is specific, temporary, and can be overcome. If the crisis expands and never ends, the child learns to believe that adversity is permanent and pervasive.

The style children learn for explaining adversity typically persists throughout their adult life. However, we can learn to dispute our pessimistic explanations.

Dispute Pessimistic Explanations

If you tend toward pessimistic explanations for adverse events, you can learn to dispute your own reasoning and adopt more objective, accurate, and optimistic explanations. Recognize that in blaming yourself for a bad outcome you are accepting a fallacy of disproportionate responsibility. Imagine becoming your own defense attorney, reexamining the evidence, challenging assumptions, casting doubt, considering other possibilities, and offering alternative explanations. Here is an example:

You have failed a test and you automatically blame yourself, believing “I am just not any good a studying anything.” As a result you feel ashamed of yourself and you may even feel mildly depressed, discouraged, or overwhelmed. Now it is time to recognize you are not helpless; it is time to dispute your hasty, inaccurate, and pessimistic conclusion. What does the evidence say? Certainly you have passed many difficult tests in your lifetime to get to where you are now. You have passed several tests recently in other subjects, and even did OK in this subject. This evidence clearly disputes your pessimistic belief that you are not any good at studying anything. What additional contributing causes are there? Perhaps you did not get a good night’s sleep, you were under unusual stress, you may not have mastered the prerequisites for this subject, you may not have had time to study or get extra help, you may be taking a heavy course load or work load, you may be upset about some recent problem, perhaps you had a fight with your lover, or your car broke down, or the test was not fair, or instructor does not communicate well. With so many factors at work, it is inaccurate to attribute blame entirely to yourself, and it is certainly an overgeneralization fallacy to extrapolate from this one occurrence to a general, pervasive, and persistent conclusion.  So a more accurate explanation is that you did poorly on this test for some isolated reason, such as poor preparation for this particular test. This isolated problem can certainly be overcome, and there is no need to feel ashamed or helpless. Put this setback into the past, address any specific issues, and go about studying as you have done successfully so many times before.
Take responsibility only for what you did and what you can change. Choose to forgive yourself. Move forward with your life and return to feeling OK with yourself.

Dr. Albert Ellis describes a technique for disputing pessimistic beliefs that can be recalled using the mnemonic ABCDE:

Adversity happens and you begin to think about what caused it.

You form a Belief to explain the failure to yourself. This may be unrealistically negative.

Your negative beliefs have Consequences, such as feeling shame, becoming depressed, or feeling overwhelmed.

Dispute these negative beliefs, and create more objective, accurate, and objective beliefs.

Energize yourself through this optimistic outlook.


There are important relationships between learned helplessness and depression. First, the symptoms are quite similar, including passivity, cognitive deficits, decreased self-esteem, sadness, hostility, anxiety, loss of appetite, reduced aggression, sleep loss, and depletion of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin.  Second, depressed people are more likely to offer internal and general explanations for bad events and tend to make external and specific explanations for good events. Cognitive therapy that provides relief from unipolar depression also results in a more optimistic explanatory style.

Studies show that depressive symptoms are associated with a pessimistic explanatory style.

Relevance to Social Problems

Learned helplessness theory has been studied as a model for a wide range of social problems. Here are examples where research shows it to be an especially good fit.

Depression can be largely explained by the learned helplessness theory, as described above.

Academic achievement fits the theory well; optimistic explanatory style predicts better academic achievement than does pessimistic explanatory style. For example, in one study habitual explanations of bad events in terms of internal general causes predicted poor academic performance, even when SAT scores were held constant.

Asian Americans are sometimes passive when a more active response might improve their circumstances. Research has shown that uncontrollable events leading to cognitive changes precede passive behavior by Asian Americans in some situations.

Learned helplessness explains some passive behavior by Black Americans. Poverty, discrimination, and ghetto life chronically exposes people to uncontrollable circumstances. Some studies show that Blacks are passive when perseverance would be more beneficial. Interviews with young unemployed blacks determined that 23% have little hope of ever getting a job. These criteria fit the model of learned helplessness, but other factors are also clearly important.

Burnout describes exhaustion and passive responses within a work environment. It occurs after prolonged uncontrollable events cause the worker to think more narrowly about the options they have for responding. This fits the learned helplessness theory.

Crowding can lead to reduced perseverance and social withdrawal. The crowding itself is an uncontrollable condition, and leads people to report having little control over events in their life. This fits the model.

Uncontrollable noise interferes with performance. Studies have shown that uncontrollable noise interferes with problem solving, but the identical noise does not when it is interpreted as controllable. The effects of noise pollution is an example of learned helplessness.

Learned helpless is also pertinent to our health. Several studies show that optimistic explanatory style is linked to good health and pessimistic explanatory style predicts poor health. Mechanisms probably include biological, emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal factors.

Incomplete research also suggests that learned helplessness is an important mechanism contributing to passive behavior in aging, athletic performance, chronic pain, sales, and unemployment.


“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”
- Henry Ford

“Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”
- Gambler’s wisdom


Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control, by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, Martin E. P. Seligman

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E. Seligman

Learned Helplessness Research, a listing of Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s books and other publications on the topic of Learned Helplessness


Posted by Elvis on 07/14/13 •
Section Revelations • Section Dying America
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