This is a nice little theory that suggests that people can learn that they have no control or influence over their future or environment.
A study carried out in 1967 by Overmeier and Seligman showed how dogs can learn to be helpless. Some dogs were put in an aparatus that gave them an inescapable electric shock. No matter what the dogs did, they could not avoid being shocked. These dogs were then put into a similar aparatus, differing only in that the dogs could jump over a small partition to escape the electric shock.
The dogs that had previously experienced the inescapable shock did not learn to escape be jumping over the partition. They had apparently learned that there was nothing they could do to escape. Other dogs that had not experienced the inescapable shock soon learned to jump over the partition to escape it.
A study by Dweck and Repucci in 1973 showed how Learned Helplessness also occurs in people.
People were given a set of puzzles to do. These puzzles had no solution and so the people did not solve them. Then these same people were given simple puzzles that could be easily solved, but the people failed, apparently because they BELIEVED they would be unable to find a solution.
Not believing that you can improve your situation can lead to passuive endurance of painful and difficult situations and can lead to depression.
Information obtained from:
"Psychology: The Science of Behaviour" (2000) by Neil R. Carlson, William Buskist and G. Neil martin
"Psychology" (1991) by Douglas A. Berstein, Edward J. Roy, thomas J. Srull and Christopher D. Wickens