First Thoughts on Learned Helplessness

Explore: You're Not Alone

Since reading Mark Britz post It’s All Training Until It Isn’t and related post Learned (Learning) Helplessness many thoughts have been stirring in my head.

Before I lost the ideas these posts and the term “learned helplessness” stirred in my head, I wanted to write down a story I was reminded of. It’s a story of how unknown to myself was introduced to this term and the prevalence it holds in society.

Before I was part of the Learning & Development world, I was a computer technician in an elementary school. I worked with teachers and sometimes students on how to best use technology in the classroom and of course I maintained it.

I never had any sort of official training in the detailed workings of computers or how to troubleshoot them, I just learned by doing. If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d search for an answer! I never thought about this, or my inquisitive nature that I used to troubleshoot every issue imaginable.

One day I was helping a teacher create a school newsletter back in the day of Microsoft Publisher (does it still exist)? She was having trouble figuring out how to align a certain group of text on the screen.

Rather than exploring, trying, then searching, teachers defaulted to asking me for help. This created great job security for me, but I do believe there’s a better way.

Not knowing much about Publisher, I played around a bit and figured out a solution. It didn’t take a search nor did it take a deep level of knowledge of the software. The only thing I used to solve the problem was good ol’ fashioned curiosity.

The teacher was so amazed how I could play around with the software and figure out a solution. I thought nothing of this at the time, but I’ve thought of this story as a reminder of how unwilling people are to take part in trial and error.

Explore: You're Not Alone

Relationship to Learned Helplessness

I think the connection is obvious to the term learned helplessness, but in case it’s not, I’ll explore it a bit further.

This teacher in her many years of schooling and training had lost the ability for exploration. This ties in with learned helplessness, she was to the point where she had forgotten how to learn or was unwilling to try on her own.

While it made me feel needed and I was more than happy to help, I thought there must be a better way. This is what led me to seek other career paths even if it was subconscious. A large part of my job was comprised of something anybody could have done, it’s just that people had forgotten how to try to do it themselves.

More to Come

This is only the beginning of my thoughts on this topic, and I’m glad that I have a name to put to it now. I have a lot of research to do on the topic and I look forward to every bit of it. Social learning and learning how to learn are important factors in combatting learned helplessness.

It’s not something that will be solved in a few bullet points. It’s deeply engrained in our culture of formal learning and doing. That is part of what I’m hoping to uncover in future posts. It’s part of what I love about L&D, there’s always something to learn, new and old but relevant still.

Do you have any stories or experiences that you could tell about seeing learned helplessness in the workplace or school?

6 thoughts on “First Thoughts on Learned Helplessness”

  1. I wonder how this learned helplessness might differ between technological/ computer centric processes and more physical or manual ones. I have no problem teaching myself auto repair, for example, but after spending a couple of hours searching for information on a software problem, I’ll often not be able to find out that the problem was I had accidentally hit control and changed the menu, or not be able to find out the name of the tool icon or what it does and thus not be able to find good information about it. Experimenting often causes a worse problem than before, getting nowhere after hours, which I never experience in the “real world.” I wonder what part techno-electronic aptitude plays in this.

    • It definitely takes a certain amount of knowledge to be able to know what you need help in. Google is great for searching for solutions to problems BUT if you don’t know the right terminology to use then it can be a lost cause.

      I suspect I would have that same issues with auto repair as you have with computers. I know what to search for with computers but for auto repair, I’d be at a loss of proper vocabulary to search for a solution.

  2. Hi Nick,

    I’ve noticed similar behaviour over the years. In some cases, it seemed like a paralysis or an unwillingness to “try stuff”, but in many cases it seemed to be more attributable to fear. Specifically, the fear of “breaking something”.
    I wonder if showing people that they can explore program menus (for example) without breaking the program would increase their comfort to the point where they might try exploring on their own?
    What do you think?


    • I think you’re right. People are not willing to explore even minimally to find those obvious solutions. Beyond that, they’re also unwilling to explore various channels to solve the problem on their own. There are so many resources out there from public resources (Google) to private (internal Wiki’s and KBs). Rather than take the time to see if they can figure out the answer, calling a phone line seems to be the first line of defense. In the end it leads to learned helplessness in learning, many have lost the ability to learn or to explore things in order to learn.

      Doing the job is number one of course, but learning to do more is a very close second or else that job will quickly become redundant.

      • I think speed and convenience also factor in. If I can get an answer from Nick in 5 seconds with no effort on my part, where’s my incentive to try finding the answer on my own?

        • This is true, and part of the problem. By choosing only this method opportunity is missed and thought/reflection is also lost. There is so much to learn in the process of learning on your own. Speed to answer isn’t always the best choice, only if that speed is vital.

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