By Ndukwu Chibundom Kaosisochukwu - January 11, 2023


Let’s paint a fairly common scenario here.

Perhaps you wrote your JAMB examinations once, twice, or maybe three times. You enter into the university, get your dream course, and, pumped with all the ginger and adrenaline that comes with being a fresher, you enter with a singular goal, to become a first-class student.

So, you do all you think will lead you to your goal. You begin visiting the library every day and ensure you read for at least an hour a day. You stay in the front seat every lecture day, meticulously taking detailed notes of whatever your lecturer teaches. You are certain that you are on the right path, the path of success.

Exams roll up and, quite frankly, the exam questions are not exactly suited to your expectations. So, when the results show up, you get one or two As furnished with a splattering of Bs and Cs. Your morale has been greatly dampened, but you decide to swallow the disappointment and have a go at it again. You spend more hours reading and putting in your all to achieve your first-class dreams. The second semester exams roll up and the results are once more, less than desired.

What are the chances that you would still roll with your dreams of a first-class to your second year? Research shows that unless you have the right explanatory style, and not many of us do, there are chances that you would succumb to the belief that you do not have what it takes to get to that goal or dream of yours, that you would believe that nothing you do would matter.

Essentially, in your academics and academic dreams, you would learn to be helpless.




Many of us have had one or two goals or ambitions that we have abandoned because somewhere along the line, after a few weeks or months of effort without results, we decided that we were just not cut out for the task and gave up hope. What many of us don't know, is that there is a terminology for that experience.

In the mid-1900s, two psychologists, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier were on a roll. They had discovered a theory that was set to completely distort the prevailing behaviourist psychological thoughts of the moment and revolutionize what the world knew about depression, optimism, and pessimism.

Due to his observations from a previous experiment done by his lecturer at the university, Martin Seligman had developed a hypothesis that creatures could learn how to be helpless. Together with Steve Maier, he set out to prove his hypothesis.

The series of experiments conducted by the two are well-known among those in the psychology field. The scientists began by grouping some dogs into three groups.

In the first group, the dogs were strapped into harnesses for a while and then released.

In the second group, the dogs were placed in the same harnesses but were subjected to electrical shocks that could be avoided by pressing a panel with their noses.

In the third group, the dogs received the same shocks as those in group two, except that those in this group were not able to control the shock, even though they pressed the panel. For those dogs in the third group, the shocks seemed to be completely random and outside of their control.

The dogs were then placed in a shuttle box with a low barrier that they all could jump from to escape the shocks and all were subjected to the same amount of shocks. Dogs from the first and second groups quickly learned that jumping the barrier eliminated the shock. However, most of those from the third group made no attempts to get away from the shocks. They just lay there, whimpering and accepting the shocks.

According to Seligman, the dogs just lay there because they had learned that nothing they did mattered and could stop the shocks, and they, therefore, expected that no actions of theirs would matter in the future. In other words, they had learned to be helpless.

This experiment was further carried out on rats, and even humans and they all served to prove Seligman’s hypothesis. Humans, as well as any other being; can learn to be helpless, with all the resultant psychological effects.

According to Martin Seligman in his book, ‘Learned Optimism’, learned helplessness is ‘the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do does not matter.’ In other words, it is a situation where a person doesn’t try to break away from a negative situation or attempt a particular task because the person believes that it is impossible to do so. This can occur when a person has failed on previous attempts or has witnessed others fail.

Unfortunately, that comes with its bounty of repercussions.



Learned helplessness has been linked to a host of other negative effects, such as pessimism and depression.

In fact, it has been shown that those who learn to be helpless end up relenting, becoming apathetic, and may end up making the situation they found themselves in much worse than it would have been if they had not learned to be helpless and given up on trying. It also leads to giving in to despair and accepting one’s fate.

In the above instance, suppose you develop the belief and mentality that nothing you do will ever give you the first class you dream of. With that would naturally come an indifference towards your academics; as is quite often the case with a lot of students. As a result, your grades would plummet, which further enforces the belief that you do not have what it takes, which makes you backtrack even more till it becomes a vicious cycle.

These consequences have been seen to manifest in plenty of social situations. Learned helplessness is the reason why many do not vote. They have learned that no matter what they do, the more corrupt politician would still find his or her way to power. 

It is the reason why many men and women living with abusive partners (particularly after a prolonged experience of the abuse and failed escape attempts) do not leave their abusive spouses, even when they have the chance to do so.

It is the reason why many of us have stopped setting new year’s resolutions, believing that it is not worth the stress since we have barely been able to achieve most of the new year’s resolutions that we have set in the past.

Most importantly, it is one of the most popular reasons why a lot of us have given up on our dreams.



In the original formulation of the theory of learned helplessness, the researchers glossed over the fact that in the learned helplessness experiments conducted with humans, about a third did not give up hope, and had, contrary to the expectations of the researchers, resisted the natural inclinations of learning to be helpless. This was until John Teasdale made that observation in one of the presentations conducted by Seligman.

As a result of this, the psychologists embarked on further research, which showed that a person’s chances of learning to be helpless depended completely on their explanatory style to adverse encounters or situations. Your explanatory style is how you habitually interpret or explain to yourself why events happen.

This means that how you interpret or explain adverse events affects your likelihood of feelings of helplessness and subsequent depression.

Research has shown that an optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas, a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.

This was further explained in the attribution approach to learned helplessness which was proposed by Bernard Weiner. His attribution theory consists of six parts:

A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts: For instance, the belief that your failure in your year one would apply to whatever other academic endeavours you put your hands to.

2. A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation: For instance believing that your failures were only because you were not well adjusted in your year one and that would not apply in all other scenarios.

3. A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time: For instance, believing that whatever caused you to fail would continue causing you to fail all through your stay in the university, rendering you incapable of ever improving your performance.

4. An unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time: For instance, believing that whatever caused you to fail was only related to your performance in your first year, and not necessarily in the entire time you spend in the university.

5. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors: For instance, believing that you did not do well because, perhaps, the exams were completely different from what you were used to, or you had not yet adjusted to the university environment, or that the lecturers set topics outside of the scope of what they taught.

6. An internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person: For instance, believing that you did not do well because you are inherently incapable of ever getting good grades.

 According to Weiner, those with an internal, stable and global attribution style for negative events are more at risk for falling into learned helplessness and developing a depressive reaction to failure experiences. They are the ones more likely to believe that they are not in control of their situation or destiny and give up and accept whatever situation they are in.

On the other hand, those that have an external, unstable and specific attribution style are more likely to resist learned helplessness and fall into the same line as one-third of humans in the experiments.



Conquering or preventing learned helplessness is reliant on changes you make as to how you view or deal with negative or averse situations, especially those that may occur from time to time, like an academic failure.

In line with this, Martin Seligman introduced the ABCD method in dealing with learned helplessness. He opined that in dealing with learned helplessness, we need to recognise the process that goes on in the formation of the beliefs that lead to learned helplessness, the ABC process.

A – Adversity

B – Belief

C – Consequences

So, when you encounter adversity, you would react by thinking about it. Those thoughts most likely would transform into your beliefs. Those beliefs do not just sit there idly, they have consequences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what you feel about the situation and what you intend to do next.

For instance:

Adversity: I have tried all I can to achieve my goal of becoming a Straight-A student. I have read like one preparing for a scholarship exam, have burned the midnight candle, and yet, all I have are average results.

Beliefs: Why am I still wasting my time going to the library to read and being the first and most attentive in lectures? It is clear that nothing I do will ever give me the first class that I desire.

Consequences: I feel empty and unintelligent, and I have decided that the effort is not worth it. Let me just do what I can to graduate and get out of this university. It is not even as though the grades would determine what my future would be like.

Once you recognize this chain of beliefs, you can break it at the core by destroying the inherent beliefs you have after every negative event.

The best way of dealing with the negative beliefs that lead to learned helplessness is to dispute them.

Disputing beliefs simply means giving them an argument or attacking them. By doing so, you can change your reaction from that of feeling dejected, helpless and giving up to a willingness to keep pushing on and trying again.

To properly dispute beliefs, you have to realise that they are false. To do that, you have to distance yourself from your beliefs so that you can realise that just believing something does not make it so. Just because you fear that you are unintelligent, academically paralysed, not gifted, purposeless and the like, does not make it so. You have to distance yourself from those beliefs and explanatory styles to verify their accuracy. And the fact that pessimistic beliefs often blow things out of proportion means that there is a very high chance that you would find that your beliefs are false.

Furthermore, the best way to dispute beliefs is to provide evidence to the contrary, to show that the beliefs are factually incorrect.

According to Seligman, to dispute your own beliefs, you have to focus on the changeable (not knowing the right way to study), the specific (the exams were not what I expected), and the non-personal (the professors were strict in their grading) causes.

Disputation: I may have hoped to get all As, but I got at least a few As and Bs. I only had two Cs out of fifteen courses. Those are not terrible grades and they do not mean that I am unintelligent. They may not be first-class results, but they certainly do not mean that I cannot achieve a first-class in the remaining three years I have at the university. I, after all, was always one of the first third in secondary school. That has to mean something. Besides, I have been able to identify that I did not do well because I prepared like I used to do back in secondary school and I have been able to see that it is not the best way forward. I will try better and use a different technique in studying so that I can achieve the grades that I desire.

The outcome of such a disputation would be the reverse of the consequences of the negative thoughts you may have had ab initio. Instead of giving up, the disputation would make you feel much better about your goals and make you feel like you have what it takes to try again and again until you eventually succeed.


A bulk of the information used for this blog post was gotten from Martin Seligman’s revolutionary book, ‘Learned Optimism’. To get the kindle version of the book, click here.

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