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Learned Helplessness

The Ability to Choose Greg McKeown

That quote sounds like something Viktor Frankl would say only it’s Greg McKeown in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

How is it that we forget our ability to choose?

One important insight into how and why we forget our ability to choose comes out of the classic work of Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, who stumbled onto what they later called “learned helplessness” while conducting experiments on German Shepherds.

Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.

Afterwards, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness.

We’re much the same way — this reminds me of the fixed versus growth mindset. If you try something and never get better you eventually give up, believing that nothing you do will matter. Grit, the ability to muddle through that without giving up, is more important than IQ. And best of all, you can develop it.

What does learned helplessness look like in organizations?

When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented. They throw themselves into every assignment. They tackle every challenge with gusto. They try to do it all. This behavior does not necessarily look like learned helplessness at first glance. After all, isn’t working hard evidence of one’s belief in one’s importance and value? Yet on closer examination we can see this compulsion to do more is a smokescreen. These people don’t believe they have a choice in what opportunity, assignment, or challenge to take on. They believe they “have to do it all.”