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:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11
Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.