Appendix 39c - Learned Helplessness

by Michael Greger, MD and United Progressive Alumni

[ Medical School Resources | Appendices | Discussion ]

"The initiation rites of medicine constitute noncontingent, aversive, inescapable, stress extending over several years." - S.P. Reidbord[429]

Psychological principle #3. Monsters like Seligman typically elicited "learned helplessness" by repeatedly delivering inescapable, uncontrollable shocks to an experimental animal under study. They found that even when a means of escape then appeared, the animal often failed to take advantage of it. If you just shock them a couple times then show them the way out, they jump at the opportunity. But if you give enough shocks, the animal - Seligman worked a lot with dogs - generally just pitifully accepts repeated painful shocks long after their more naive litter mates have fled.

The phenomenon is not thought to be due to adaptation to shock - experimenters made sure of that by making the shocks horrifically painful. Theorists postulate that it is instead the perceived lack of control over trauma that leads subjects to believe that nothing they can do will help - a sort of learned hopelessness as well.


[429] Reidbord, SP. "Psychological Perspectives on Iatrogenic Physician Impairment." The Pharos 1983(Summer):2-8.;

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