Growth Mindset Podcast

19: Learned Helplessness and Learned Optimism - Unleash Awesomeness

June 4th, 2018

We all experience learned helplessness in our lives much to our own detriment. Yet most people don't even know what it is. Sam breaks down what the effect is, from how it was discovered to what you can do about it.

This episode helps us learn more traits to boost our growth mindset with the goal of making you a more positive and strategic thinker able to look at the bigger picture and less caught up in the problems life throws at us.


It was discovered by Marting Seligman. He restrained dogs in a box and then gave them an electric shock at the same time as ringing a bell. After repeating this the dogs learned they would get a shock every time they heard the bell.

He then put them in a box with a small fence they could jump over. on the other side of the fence would not get a shock when the bell rang. However, when the bell rang they just cowered and accepted the shock.

If he put a different dog in the box that had not received the electric shocks before it would try to escape and quickly learn that when the bell rang it would be safe on one side of the box and not on the other.

This has been demonstrated with other animal studies such as rats and even elephants and just in teh last few years in zebrafish and tree-shrews.

They found that elelphant trainers would tie a young elephant to a post and it would struggle to try and escape the rope. For hours and days they might pull against it before giving up. However, once they gave up they wouldn’t test it again. So once teh elephant becomes an adult that can rip up tree’s and knock down walls, if you tie it to the post it was tied to as a child it gives up and sits down until it’s released. amazing!


Learned helplessness in extreme scenarios has not been experimented on with humans but it has been proven to be similar to those observed in animals although there are more complicated factors at hand and they found two types of helplessness can arise.

Original Experiment

In one experiment they had three cases for the human test subjects.

One group heard a loud noise and had a button in front of them. they needed to press the button 4 times to make it stop and they usually worked this out pretty fast.

a second group had the same noise and hte same button. but when pressed the button did nothing and the subjects soon stopped bothering with the pointless button

a third group had no noise at all.

In the second test all participants heard a similar loud noise and had a box with a lever in front of them. When manipulated the lever turned off the noise.

Groups 1 and 3 learned to turn off the noise quickly. group 2 who had become used to not being ablt to turn off the noise mostly didn’t try the lever and sat with an annoying noise playing.

Deficits of Helplessness

They deduced that learned helplessness creates three deficits in subjects, cognitive, motivational and emotional:

Cognitive - the subject has the idea in their mind that their circumstances are uncontrollable

Motivational - meaning that the subject doesn’t bother to respond to potential methods of escaping a negative situation

Emotional - the subject takes on a depressed state when they are placed in a negative situation they cannot control

Learned helplessness in humans can have two types. Universal helplessness and personal helplessness

Universal helplessness is a sense of helplessness where the subject believes nothing can be done about the situation, no one can help alleviate the pain or discomfort.

Personal helplessness is where the person believes that others may be able to find a solution or to avoid the pain or discomfort but that they are not personally capable of finding a solution.

Both can lead to a state of depression but with different qualities.

Universal helplessness leads to explanation of the problem being due to external factors that they can’t solve, whereas personal helplessness will tend to be explained due to internal reasons.

As such personal helplessness is associated with a lower sense of self-esteem and can have a greater emotional impact.

Neither are great and experiencing either is a bad place to be. They are more likely to arise when we are anxious or under stress and then just naturally over-time we are more likely to accumulate learned helplessness traits as we get older due to two fundamental laws of nature

  • as time passes we are exposed to more situations where learned helplessness can arise

  • as time passes our bodies age and we experience more loss of abilities and health complications, some of which are reversible yet they get accepted.

As well as the immediate issues of not helping ourselves in the given situation it also has negative effects such as burnout, Depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness


Often a child performs badly in one topic, math or in my case languages. They perform poorly compared to the rest of the class and the teacher doesn’t provide useful examples the student can learn from or faith in the student that they can do better. The student gets used to being bad at the subject and only get’s worse and pays less attention in lessons and completes homework in a more resigned manner expecting to do badly. They lose confidence to use the skills in the rest of their live. i.e. a bad math student never has confidence to work with figures or a bad language student never tries to learn a new language and assumes they will not be able to.


My friend who first told me about learned helplessness used to be bad at english, when he was a t school in Germany he had one teacher who gave him his test results back once and told him he’d never be any good at english and that he was a stupid child. like seriously WTF was this guy being a teacher but the effect was really damaging on my friends motivation to even try and get better at english so he always approached it with an attitude that he wouldn’t learn much and struggled even more than he needed to. Luckily Germans basically have to study english forever so he went on to become pretty much fluent, however, he still had really low confidence for a long time even when he was pretty much fluent until he found out about learned helplessness and how silly his mindset was.

Another common example is shyness. People who feel shy in social situations can eventually feel there is nothing they can do to overcome their symptoms. When the believe their symptoms our outside of their control this can lead to them not engaging in social situations and making the shyness even more pronounced and compounding effects of anxiety and stress around the situation so they avoid it even more.

I personally have suffered from shyness and language learning difficulties. but where i first encountered learned helplessness was with coding


I realised my first ‘learned helplessness’ quality whilst my co-founder was teaching me some programming techniques for a new front end framework we we re writing. I am more the business guy that has just got into coding and not exactly the core developer here but I can code. However, as he was teaching me and giving me tasks to do I was constantly asking more questions whenever I became stuck or didn’t understand something. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the code I was writing and generally made the assumption that what I was doing was probably wrong. I’d literally internalised that I was a bit of an idiot. He sat down and told me I wasn’t stupid that I was showcasing learned helplessness qualities to my problems. The solutions are in front of me I just need to look for them instead of assuming I will fail.

I had developed a mindset that I am not clever enough to work things out by myself and that I need someone to show me the way every time. As a coder that is so dangerous. It causes you to be insecure about your actions and generally worse at everything from the start. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of your own demise. If every time you want to learn something new you expect it will take you forever and you do a million tutorials or need to hire a mentor you will never get anywhere on your own.

He challenged me that I wasn’t as stupid as I was telling myself and that I could answer most of my questions myself. If I took more time to read the things I didn’t understand and follow all unknown paths to their end I would be able to answer any question I had. Everything was written in front of me I just needed to open my eyes and actually use my own initiative instead of depending on others.

For a coder, this is really hard to admit but it changed me completely.

I’m now reading parts of applications I would just never go into before because I just assumed I wouldn’t know what was going on. And the best thing is I'm totally getting it, I’m fixing my own problems and doing things without asking questions or without even using the internet. I literally feel like a new person.


Stuff you learn straight away and do and then forget and stop doing..:

  1. If trying to do something difficult. Don’t just start coding. Write out what you are going to do. The more complicated it is the more notes you should make.

  2. If you are going through someone else's code. Write down what each file does and each function within that file. methodically make a map of how things work. Write down the difficult questions and don’t stop until you have found all the answers.

  3. Google is your best friend. Everyone knows this, but how many times have you asked someone how to do something and they had to google it for you. It’s embarrassing. Before you ask someone anything, first ask google. (and depending on what you are doing, also try turning it off and on again)

  4. _Rubber duck philosophy _— before asking your friend (or if you don’t have a friend) but google hasn’t worked. Try the rubber duck philosophy. Have a hypothetical conversation with your rubber duck where you explain what you are doing, explain what the problem is. Maybe draw him a diagram. If you haven’t already solved the issue by just doing this you can then ask your duck the question of how to fix the problem. Then with a better map of where the problem lies break down what you do know and don’t know, this will help get to the root of the issues. You usually find that the answer is within you. So many times when explaining a problem you will say something along the lines of, ‘Well really I should just be doing x, y, z, method because this p, w, v, y, t method is a really stupid and ….’ STOP there. you’ve solved your problem.

So having seen the radical change this caused, I thought I would investigate ‘Learned Helplessness’ some more and it lead to this whole post.

Note — I am a successful entrepreneur who up to now thought he was constantly challenging himself to be healthier, wealthier, happier and wiser. And for the most part, I am. buuuut there are whole sides of me I’ve stopped developing and opportunities I’ve simply shut out because of things I’ve learned about myself over time that I’ve accepted as fact.

Up to now i’ve broken down the problems and attributes of learned helplessness which has been a little depressing and given one example of how I dealt with it but now we are going to learn about the more scientific solutions we can use how to overcome any learned helplessness attribute so we can live happier and more successful lives. Winning!


*Martin Selgman gives the example of top athletes. *

To become number one in a given sport you usually have to rank most consistently over a year including many events. (just think about tennis or formula 1). So to reach number one it is likely that the top athlete will also fail on several occasions. So their real strength is the ability to bounce back from a defeat and ‘hang in there’. If they just quit after a winning streak they would never be so successful.

Seligman showed that optimists are more successful in almost all areas including relationships, sport and general health, business and academic success. So how do we become more optimistic?

Explanatory styles are essentially little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of life. We are interpretation machines adn we continuosly go about our do making up explanations and stories for life around us.

Your explanatory style is your default pattern for digesting and explaining bad events that occur. There are three main elements to each explanation, the “3P’s”, which determine if we approach problems positively or negatively.

  1. Personalisation - the perception of causality

Pessimists view events as internally caused. e.g. A player loses a chess match. therefore I am bad a chess.

An optimist view things as externally caused and will allow for non-personal factors e.g. this opponent is amazing or today I am not feeling so good or the opponent was lucky

  1. Permanence - the perception of time

Pessimists believe setbacks are permanent and truly fixed forever. e.g. I will never be good at chess or be able to beat this opponent.

Optimists believe setbacks are only temporary e.g. I didn’t prepare well or I had a cold or I need to practice more, next time I will perform better

  1. Pervasiveness - the perception of space and further impacts

Pessimists see a setback as pervasive and related to many area’s as well as the specific setback e.g. I failed at chess, I am not clever or good at anything

Optimist see a setback as narrowly contained in the one area of life e.g. I still have a life outside of chess where I am smart and capable.


I just explained that a pessimist views negative situations in the opposite way to an optimist, they takes them personally and as a permanent and wide reaching thing. It is also important to see how someone explains a good situation.

When encountered with a good situation the self explanations swap and the pessimist views this event as external and not personal and as specific and impermanent, whereas the optimist takes a good situation as internal, longer lasting and wider reaching.

An individuals characteristic style of explaining events plays a major role in whether a learned helplessness trait will develop. A pessimistic explanatory style is associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing learned helplessness.


Bill and Ben apply for a promotion in the flowerpot factory. They both get rejected.

Bill is a pessimist. He assumes, rightly or wrongly, that the reason he missed out is

  • personal (I wasn’t good enough), and/or

  • permanent (I’ll never get ahead), and/or

  • pervasive (this ruins everything -what’s the point of living).

Bill is likely to give up on himself and probably won’t try again and at risk of becoming depressed due to this explanation.

In contrast, Ben is an optimist. Faced with the identical setback he assumes the cause is

  • non-personal (the boss’s nephew got it), and

  • temporary (I had a hangover that day), and

  • non-pervasive (this impacts my career, but not my relationship, my hobbies, my gym membership etc -life goes on).

As such life does go on and Ben is fine and more likely to try for other promotions and not carry the setback around with him into other area’s of his life.

Martin Seligman’s site Authentic Happiness provides a free optimism assessment test to measure your level of optimistic permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. This allows you to recognize, and therefore change, your descriptions to become more optimistic.



When faced with loss and disappointment we should try asking ourselves these key questions to dig into current and past self explanations of problems that arise:


  • Did you blame yourself?

If so, in hindsight did that prove accurate? Are you really to blame, or was it just bad luck or a factor dependant on the situation or people around you?


  • Did you assume it would last forever?

If so, were those predictions accurate? How long can it really last? Will it always be like this or will it pass?


  • Did you assume it would ruin everything in your life?

If so, in hindsight was that truly accurate? What does it really affect in your life? What in your life will continue unaffected?

Try and review your explanatory style wherever possible and challenge any pessimistic explanations that have become your default setting. Review and reduce the negative impact of past setbacks and try to keep this technique to encourage more resilience in the future.

Next time life gives you lemons don’t make lemonade. Review the Personal, Permanent and Pervasive model instead!


When we face dissapointment or negativity of any sort we can use the ABC method to begin to change feelings of helplessness and pessimistic perspectives. The method was developed by Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Martin Seligman to allow a more flexible response to negativity and is a next step antidote to a defeatist mindset of learned helplessness.

A - Adversity

  • Descibe the event that happened. Leave out any evaluations or judgements. Simply describe the event that happened in a way that is as unemotional as possible.

  • Example - ‘A colleague missed an important deadline and put the team behind schedule for the rest of the project'

B - Belief

  • Explain how the adveristy was interpreted. Do not state how you think it should be interpreted, but what your actual default belief or interpretation of the event was.

  • Example - “I can’t believe how selfish the team member is and how unwilling they are to take things seriously. This shows their overall lack of dedication"

C - Consequence

  • Think about the feelings and actions that result from these beliefs. Go back with a level of introspection and ask yourself how you handled it. Be sure to go deep. How and when do those emotions and feelings lead to certain behaviours and actions.

  • Example - “I am overcome with anger and frustration. I feel betrayed and discouraged. I noticed I began raising my voice and becoming hostile and sharp towards the team member"

D - Disputation

  • Do you have grounds to dispute these automatic reactions? What are the possible repercussions of following these emotions? Consider whether there are any greater benefits to moving on from the situaion and stopping this default (impulsive) reaction before it starts.

  • Example - “Maybe I was overreacting. I don’t know the full situation yet. Maybe they had a bad week or tried to get the work done and ran into issues. By getting stressed I just annoy myself and others and further hinder the project by reducing our ability to work together."

E - Energisation

  • Did you manage to turn things around? Put all your focus on the positive feelings that ensue as a result of reframing your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Ask yourself, what’s different between how I just handled this situation versus how I would normally handle it? Relish in those personal rewards!

  • Example - “I am proud of myself for intervening in my automatic reactions and to be able to stop them part way through. I’m happy that I’m accomplishing more by looking at things in a more reasonable manner"

Regularly applying the ABC method will get you into the habitual groove of optimistic response and avoid damaging pessimism. When you have practiced it a few times you get to notice a natural reframing of situations in response to negative events.

*Let’s practice it now. *

This ABC method has a stupid name. It is actually ABCDE and to be honest these letters were only chosen because they are catchy and they words they represent aren’t the best words to describe the action at each point! The result is I am annoyed and don’t use the method

A - Adversity

There is a method that is helpful for being positive but has a silly name

B - belief

I think it has a really stupid name and is therefore also a stupid method

C- Consequence

I didn’t take it seriously because i was pre-occupied by it’s stupid name rather than the actual method

D - Disputation

I am being silly and wasting an opportunity to learn a better way of living my life as a calm and happier person that gets on with people better and can be more productive and kinder to those around me. I should try out the method anyway and maybe give it a better name if I am so concerned. Like ‘The deep dive method’ or… screw it actually perhaps it is a good name after all. I like the ABC method name.

E - Energisation

Wow what a great example. I just made myself laugh at how stupid I am and feel more positive about the problem and more willing to use it to fix other things I react to negatively. Life is fabulous. and I have an example for my blog. Double win.


After diagnosing our attribution style and learning to overcome pessimistic thinking, the final method is to understand that we are in control and take ownership of our response to situations and the next steps we take. Believing that a failure is out of our control or a situation is unlikely to change leads to worse performance.

To achieve greater sense of self control we should practice active goal setting. This is proven to increase behaviour change as it increases your desire to act in a particular way (motivation). setting sensible goals that are likely to be achieved provides a sense of control over our outcomes, even more so when we begin to meet those goals on a consistent basis.


You need to know exactly what you want to achieve and not some vague goal.


  • What is it exactly that I want to achieve?

  • Where is this going to happen?

  • When am I going to make this happen?

  • Who is going to be involved?

  • How am I going to make this happen?

  • Why do I want to reach this goal?

e.g. I want to build a sustainable business with revenue

  • List concrete, tangible outcomes.

  • Give names, locations, offices, cities, etc.

  • Give specific dates and timelines. Work backwards.

  • Give names and team members as well as potential partners and others to lean on.

  • With all the information above, lay out a detailed strategy, tactic, and plan.

  • Tie it into your bigger vision for yourself and your business. These relate to your principles, values, missions – the things that you stay true to.


To track your progress it must be measurable. This helps provide feedback for your brain that it is gaining a sense of self control.


  • Make it easy to determine where you stand with your progress

  • Help refine exactly what it is you want

e.g. My business must hit $10k monthly recurring revenue by the end of the year

At this point don’t take the easy option and set small micro goals that are easy too easy to achieve.


You don’t want it to be too easy but also if it is too hard it is a pointless goal. You won’t be able to reach it and be more likely ot give up and fall back into learned helplessness traits.


  • Is my target really achievable?

  • What will happen if I fall short?

  • Are there any constraints or obstacles to overcome?

  • What do I need to sacrifice to achieve it?


How relevant is the goal? Will it be fulfilling to me as an individual? Do I really want or need it or is a different goal more worthy of my effort? Does it actually fit in with your other goals


  • Why is this goal important to me?

  • What is worth sacrificing to achieve this goal?

  • Will this goal really make me happier or am I just trying to prove something to others?


You need a timeline ideally with sub deadlines for any goal to ensure you are on track and that it actually happens. It will help you identify neccessary steps at different points and stick to the actions required to achieve your goals. Without a timeline there is no pressure to start accomplishing the goal which allows things to slip away.

Establish a time frame

  • Set a deadline or time for completion

Set benchmarks

  • this will help track progress on route to goal

  • helps maintain motivation over time

Check in regularly

  • are there steps you can be taking right now to help achieve a long term goal

  • what should be done over the next week to contribute to the goal?

  • what should be done over the next month to contribute to the goal?

Practicing it

SMART goals are great paired with something to keep you on track. There are many goal setting apps out there that do a good job. If you are really serious about a certain goal then I highly reccomend using stickK which allows you to set stakes and even take donations to antiu-charities if you don’t keep up with a certain goal.


The Great Pokemon Rescue

The same friend who was told he was shit at english has another example where we can take ownership of our problems

When he was a young child and the Pokemon craze was all the rage he finally got his first Pokemon game and had collected a few Pokemon, but after a few hours the Pokemon were getting very low on health and one had already fainted. He had missed the tutorial showing how to revive a Pokemon and he genuinely believed his Pokemon were all going to die. He sat on a wall and cried by himself. Anyone who ever played Pokemon i’m sure will feel for him and how terrible this must have felt!

His mother asked him what was wrong and he explained. She got out the Pokemon book she had purchased for him along with the Pokemon game, within a few minutes she found the instructions of how to revive Pokemon and joy of joys they were all saved. My friend learned that when you have a specific problem you can research it and find solutions. This has helped him to become a great coder as he is great at reading the documentation to understand what he is taking on before he starts, and as soon as a problem arises he knows it can be fixed by research.

Use Google Yourself

Just like my example of coding many people are afraid of computers or coding or anything technical and become dependant on others to fix their problems. But so much of the time everything we need to know is on google.

Myself and every developer that ever existed get so many questions from people who aren’t coders asking fairly simple things to do with computers that I don’t know how to do either. e.g. connect a printer, set up some software, connect to a network…

All I do when asked how to fix something on this device i’ve never used before is google the problem in front of the other person and show them how to fix it. Yet when the same problem arises again or something similar they still come straight back despite being told that i don’t know how their device works and I need to use google which is a free resource they also have available.

This is a simple example for technical vs non technical people. but there are many other examples where we get super bogged down in fairly simple questions

  • How do I ask a girl on a date?

  • How do I study to get a higher grade in my test?

  • How do I exercise more?

  • How do I find time to meditate?

  • How do I start a business?

These questions basically answer themselves by just doing it and there is no real magic sauce, sure you can learn better techniques for these things


So we’ve found that we can all develop learned helplessness traits but with a positive attitude we can reduce our likelihood to be so prone. And by assessing ourselves we can overcome our self imposed limitations lead happier and more successful lives!


Get any of the books free on audible

[Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control](
Written by psychologist Christopher Peterson and the original learned helplessness researchers, Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Martin Seligman breaks down how to lead a positive and successful life

Mindset - The Psychology Behind Success - Carol dweck

The original book on growth mindset and developing a positive attitude. Great read!


Martin Seligman’s TED Talk on the “New Era of Positive Psychology

A classic talk

Psychologist Lance Luria on the differences between learned helplessness and learned optimism. You’ll learn about the amazing ability of the human brain to train itself, as well as the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and other ways to link the health of the mind and body.

A quick summary of Seligman’s book Learned Optimism

A nice animated review that covers all the main points in under 5 minutes

Contact me

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  • Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49-74. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49

  • Dweck, C. (1975). The role of expectations and attributions in the alleviation of learned helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 674-685. doi:10.1037/h0077149

  • Tayfur, O., Karapinar, P. B., & Camgoz, S. M. (2013). The mediating effects of emotional exhaustion cynicism and learned helplessness on organizational justice-turnover intentions linkage. International Journal of Stress Management, 20, 193-221. doi:10.1037/a0033938

  • Thompson, J. (2010). Learned helplessness: You’re not trapped. GoodTherapy. Retrieved from

  • Wu, W. (2009, February 8). Learned helplessness: How to tame a baby elephant. [Personal Blog]. Retrieved from


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