Changing Perspectives

I often wondered what made some people feel helpless and others empowered in their choices and decision-making.  While I knew that thoughts could play a part in both, I did not realize how debilitating some could be when experienced in a negative light.  In this week’s reading for applied social psychology, Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012) discussed Seligman and colleagues model of learned helplessness called the “attributional reformulation of the learned helplessness theory of depression.” As probably assumed by the name, people that are prone to depression typically believe that their situation is unchangeable and expect a negative outcome as a result (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 94).  Thinking about this cycle, it is no wonder why individuals continually experience the same results and always see the “down side.”  It’s pretty hard to break away from something that seems to occur naturally, particularly if happens more often than the good things.  But I am curious, can this change?  Has this practice been used in other settings successfully?

I received one answer in a study sought to change self-defeating behaviors in at-risk readers.  Coley and Hoffman (1990) selected six “at risk” sixth grade students who were receiving remedial reading for their case study.  To qualify, the students had to be involved in the program for a minimum of 2 years.  It was assumed that such students would lack expressed confidence in their abilities as they have experienced setbacks in their academic journeys.  The conditions the students were introduced to consisted of three parts: 1) question response cues, double entry/response journals, and 3) self-evaluation.  Based on their findings, the students were able to express more confidence in their abilities and viewed themselves more positively (Coley et al., 1990).

Being a student myself, I can imagine the way the sixth graders felt in that situation.  If I experienced difficulty and had a hard time changing this outcome, it would be pretty hard for me to see the “light at the end of the tunnel.”  Sometimes it takes an intervention, such as the one described, to help individuals to see that their situation can change.  Just like their perspectives and confidence improved, the same result can occur in other situations.

Langer and Rodin (1976) and Kane et al. (2007) found that elderly patients who maintained control of their day-to-day lives, with activities and the like, experienced health benefits that differed from similar patients in a nursing home and/or a more restrictive setting.  Kane et al. (2007) noted that patients in the experimental condition had lower incidents of bed rest than those in the other two conditions.  And Langer et al. (1976) reported that patients in the experimental group reported increases in happiness, which was significantly more than the comparison group.  Obviously, both studies worked against learned helplessness and enabled patients to be active rather than passively involved.  Although the studies differed in implementation, both the overall objectives and outcomes resulted in positive changes.

With the examples shared, the response to my questions would be that learned helplessness can change and this has been successfully demonstrated in several instances.  While it may not be easy to exercise hope in situations that seem impossible, with a little help in realigning this thought process, this this too can change.



Coley, J. D., & Hoffman, D. M. (1990). Overcoming learned helplessness in at-risk readers. Journal of Reading, 33(7), 497-502.

Kane, R. A., Lum, T. Y., Cutler, L. J., Degenholtz, H. B. & Yu, T.-C. (2007). Resident Outcomes in Small-House Nursing Homes: A Longitudinal Evaluation of the Initial Green House Program. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 55, 832–839. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2007.01169.x

Langer, E. J., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191-198. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.34.2.191

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

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  1. Someone close to me suffers from depression, and like you, I have struggled over the years to identify with what it’s like to be that incapacitated and not be able to “pull yourself out of it.” We always just thought he was being himself and it wasn’t until the last few semesters where I learned the neurochemistry and psychosocial factors involved in depression that I was able to see that he was beyond eccentric and actually dealing with a serious mental illness. I used to think that depression was more black and white and you either had it or you didn’t. However, Sapolsky (2004) explains that most people are just going along living their regular, normal lives when inevitably some negative event takes place, and some people fight their way through it whereas others are knocked down and unable to recover. He cites the estimation that 5-20 percent of us will go through a debilitating major depression at some point in our lives that will require medication and/or hospitalization. To add to that staggering suggestion, although his book was written a decade ago, it mentions the prediction that depression is predicted to be the second leading cause of medical disability worldwide by the year 2020 (Sapolsky, 2004). I knew the condition, like all mental illness, was stigmatized and rarely discussed but I had no idea what a pervasive secret it was that touched all of our lives. We probably all know at least one person who is experiencing or has experienced a major depression, and I think the more it’s openly discussed the more people will seek help and not have to suffer in silence.

    The Langer and Rodin (1976) study you mention features the variable of increased control that was able to produce encouraging findings for the nursing home patients. Sapolsky (2004) indicates that depression is highly associated with decreased levels of control, so it makes sense that promoting self-responsibility, accountability, and participation in decision making resulted in positive outcomes for the residents. I don’t think the study mentions it, but there is a high incidence (understandably) of depression in nursing homes and the introduction of greater control over their environments was surely connected to mitigating some of their depressive symptoms when explaining their increases in activity and happiness (Langer & Rodin, 1976).


    Langer, E. J., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191-198. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.34.2.191

    Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

  2. Gabriel A Haggray

    I like your examples of how a little act of hope can change a person’s outcome. I recently heard a beauty pageant contestant talk about her mentorship program for young girls ages 13-17. In her speech she said that she loves telling you girls that there is hope for them, she said that she loved to share her experience with them, and that she loved to talk to them about colleges and tell them why an HBCU is so important. During her speech I kept thinking about her phrasing of loving to TELL, TALK. To me this seemed very one-sided and passive. I kept thinking, instead of telling and talking about, why don’t you get them engaged in their own future, why don’t you put the responsibility of these girl’s happiness in their own hands, by empowering them and teaching with a hands on approach. Because as we see from our readings and from your examples, it is so important that people have good choices to change their environment.

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