Learned Helplessness in the Workplace

Last Updated: 05 Jul 2021
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In the late 1960’s and early 1970s Mr. Martin Seligman began to study what effects surroundings have on not only animals, but human beings. His studies were an attempt to determine what ramifications outside influences could have on a live beings motivation and drive for success. He started his studies by giving rats electric shocks.

They were inadvertent and without cause, and this was so the rats had no way of reasoning what could cause or prevent the shocks, and how to avoid them. What he found, was that eventually the rats would give up on trying to avoid or escape the shocks. Seligman eventually applied these studies to human infants and what he discovered was a theory he deemed, “Learned Helplessness. ” Learned Helplessness in the Workplace When Martin Seligman chose to study human infants and the effects of outside influences, he wanted to determine whether a lack of control over one’s surroundings could lead to a lack in motivation.

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What he found was that just like the rats, humans would learn helplessness, and hence the reason his theory is known as the Learned Helplessness Theory. In short, the theory states that with no control over one’s surroundings, the response will be helplessness. He also found that those who learn this will have an interference with the rest of their development. They may have emotional problems along with anxiety and depression as adults. One of the ways that Seligman believed children learned helplessness was if there was no correlation between actions and there outcome.

Just like the rats who tried to escape but where still punished with shocks, they felt that no matter what they did the outcome would be the same. Children who had parents with poor parenting skills or who didn’t recognize their successes, learned that no matter what they did, it didn’t change the outcome. Kids who struggled in school may begin to fail repeatedly as they would feel that even if they did try, they would fail. People who have learned helplessness suffer from low self-esteem, and tend to blame themselves for everything

While studying learned helplessness in humans, Seligman found that it also can be associated with different ways of thinking about the events that form person's "explanatory style. " Seligman believed there were three major components of explanatory style associated with learned helplessness. He termed those as permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Permanence pertained to the idea that no matter what happens or the events leading up to them, the outcomes were in fact permanent. Pervasiveness referred to the thought that if something negative happened in one situation it would happen in other situations as well.

For instance if a person struggles with math, they then assume they are stupid and struggle in every aspect. Personalization, the third and final component of explanatory style, refers to whether one will attribute negative events to their own flaws or to outside circumstances or other people. Most people with Learned Helplessness will attribute everything to their own flaws or shortcomings. Seligman believes in order to help a person overcome Learned Helplessness; they must strive to Learn Optimism.

He believes parents and others who celebrate young kid’s mastery of new subjects can lead to optimism as well as their own attitudes toward life. In my own position as a business owner, I believe I have employed a young woman and possibly a few others with who had learned helplessness. There is one young woman in particular who seemed to struggle with the struggles Seligman outlined in his theory. I felt a daily battle in trying to convince her she could change her life and the outcomes of the events in her life if she became motivated.

When I bought my health club Cassie was the young woman who was the receptionist at the front desk. What I quickly learned was that Cassie had two drug addicted parents who had spent her entire life beating each other up, a father who was in and out of jail who tried to use her to get drugs, and a mother who tried to get her to do drugs with her. I quickly recognized in Cassie the ability to be different than her upbringing, but I couldn’t see a desire from her to get there. She had an inner voice that told her she never could be successful, as mediocrity was all she felt she deserved.

I rewarded her for her work in attempt to motivate her, but it seemed no matter what promotion or reward I offered I couldn’t get her motivated to make changes in her life. She would come to work on time, and do what was asked of her, but I never saw any motivation to rise above and excel to the next level, even though I could see she was naturally intelligent and capable of many things. I felt for Cassie as I am not sure she ever had a chance given her parents, but I couldn’t change her as I so wished I could.

No amount of positive praise or reward could convince Cassie that she could change her life, even though her intelligence was high and her ability was great. She just didn’t believe it was possible. I tried for four years to be a role model for Cassie, and there were many days when I thought she was making the choices to change her life, but she never followed through as she really believed change for her was impossible. Cassie had tried for her entire youth rise above both her parents, but eventually she felt no matter what she did the end was inevitable.

It’s as if she predetermined her future by thinking it was going to be the worst future possible. In the end it seems she figured if she couldn’t beat her parents, she should join them. I tried very hard to be a positive impact for Cassie and help change her life, but the damage that she had incurred seemed to be too great. No matter what I did, she couldn’t become an optimist or change the way she felt about the outside influences in her life. No matter how hard I encouraged or pushed her in a positive direction, she always wound up back on the bottom because she truly believed that is where she belonged.

I often think about her and wonder if there is anything else I could have done to help her crawl out of her life and into one she was worthy up, but in the end I think that she couldn’t change her way of thinking and truly believed the type of life she had was meant to be permanent. She is living somewhere now in a rundown apartment off of welfare with her young daughter who I believe will turn out exactly like her. She has no job because she doesn’t want to lose her food stamps and welfare, and she is back on drugs.

My only hope in life is that somebody will be able to walk into her life and tell her daughter that she is smart, and capable of so much in life. I have learned from Cassie the value of celebrating a child’s little successes, and encouraging them to be something in life. It’s sad, but Cassie’s case of Learned Helplessness has taught me about promoting optimism, and I plan on spreading it to any children I come in contact with.

Bodily needs pleasures, pain, impulses were just means to an end. Will had the ultimate say. He and other philosophers at the time were convinced that they had the answer. In the end the will turned out to be something of a mystery. In dealing with just the will to explain motivation, it just proved to be a purpose and it was not universal in its theory because some people had more willpower than others.

His theory is still being dealt with today. Religions and scientists still trying to prove or disprove his theory. His main distinction was between animals and humans. Darwin took away the idea of will when he was able to show that animals were able to use their resources (motivation) to adapt to like humans. So in this sense the will was no longer an explanation of motivated behavior. James’ theory consisted of introducing stimulus into the picture. Reflex and instincts is what makes human motivation. McDougall took the research on a generation after Darwin.

Once researchers embraced this idea the next thing to do was to identify the instincts. This became a daunting task. On top of that the instinct theory was exposed as circular. In other words, instinct theory failed because theorists were unable to determine if instincts really exist. | Third Grand Theory: Drive| Sigmund Freud Robert Woodworth Clark Hull | 20th Century| Freud, all behaviors were satisfying needs. Behavior serves bodily needs and drive acted as a guard or middleman to ensure that behaviors occurred when needed for comfort of the body. Satisfaction of the bodily need quieted drive.

Freud’s theory was crushed due to three factors

  1. overestimation of biological forces
  2. overreliance on data taken from case studies of mentally ill individuals and
  3. ideas that were not scientifically testable.

Hull’s drive theory did had one thing the other will and instinct did not have and that was prediction. Drive came from environmental conditioning which marked the beginning of scientific study of motivation. If the answer to the environmental question could be answered as to the motivation created then, one would be able to manipulate or predict motivational states in the laboratory.

Eventually though drive met its fate too. It was clear that drive reduction was neither necessary nor sufficient for learning to occur. Robert Woodworth: responsible for the so called “dynamic: interactional metaphor of nature vs. nurture. He saw the essential task of psychological investigation as ‘the give and take’ between the organism’s mentality and the requirements of its physical and social existence. According to the scientific world of the 21st century these thoughts are holding the discipline back. |

Goal Setting| Locke| Late 1960s| Mini-theories represented attempts by researchers and theorists to focus on more and more specific aspects of behavior rather than to account for ALL motivating factors by relying on one single theory. As a result of this emphasis, mini-theories were developed to help explain some but not all of motivated behavior. For example, mini-theories might attempt to explain why a student is performing poorly in elementary school or why Mini-theories became popular because they focused largely on cognitive approaches to understanding behavior.

They represented a reaction to the idea that humans are inherently passive. They also reflected a growing need for psychology to provide answers to questions that had important social implications or solved problems that were socially relevant. Edwin Locke’s Goal Setting Theory states that people who set goals for themselves will become motivated to achieve those goals, solely as a result of making those goals. Furthermore, those who set specific goals that are more difficult are able to achieve a higher level of performance than those who set easier and abstract goals.

The Goal Setting Theory outlines five important principles of goal setting that motivates individuals and they are: clarity(measurable and unambiguous goals with a specific completion time ensure that there is no misunderstanding about what is required to reach the goal), challenge (difficult goals are often more motivating than easier goals), commitment (when there is a strong commitment to the goal, there is a higher level of motivation), feedback (it is important to provide opportunities for clarifying and reassuring), and task complexity (allowing time for people to achieve the goal or learn what is needed to achieve the goal).

One important aspect of the goals is that they must be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound (SMART). In 1975 the theory was scientifically proven by researchers Latham and Baldes. Common criticisms of this theory are that it is a technique rather than a theory, it can produce undesirable competition, and it emphasizes some aspects over others (quantity over quality).

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that arises from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time. Dissonance is referred to as the uncomfortable feeling and can often be projected as feelings of guilt, embarrassment or immorality. Dissonance can also be greater in some cases such as with big decisions or decisions that will have a great impact, decisions that are particularly difficult to solve (such as with two similar decisions), and decisions that are concerned with oneself.

This theory states that when a person has these conflicting thoughts, then they will be motivated to resolve the conflict as humans tend to seek consistency within their thoughts. Often there are three ways that a person will resolve the conflict. They may change their behavior, justify their behavior by changing the conflicting beliefs to reduce dissonance (such as by reducing the importance), or justify the behavior by adding more beliefs that will reduce dissonance (such as focusing on strengths).

It is important to note that one will be more likely to change their attitude or beliefs as there would be less dissonance involved, rather than changing one’s behavior. Atkinson’s theory states orientation is the result of two separate motives: the motive of achieving success and the motive to avoid failure. A persons motivation to achieve success depends on three factors: the need to succeed, the persons estimate of the ability to success and likelihood of succeeding, and the incentive for success.

The motive to avoid failure shares the same three conditions, but in relation to avoiding failure. This theory has been criticized due to the fact that a persons needs must be known before behavior can be affected. The Learned Helplessness theory speculated after testing on dogs, that humans too learn to be helpless when placed in a situation in which their actions seem to not have an effect, leading to depression. It has been criticized for not distinguishing between universal and personal helplessness.

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Learned Helplessness in the Workplace. (2018, Sep 05). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/learned-helplessness-in-the-workplace/

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