Nemogun syndrome: learned helplessness

Table of contents:

Nemogun syndrome: learned helplessness
Nemogun syndrome: learned helplessness

My friend has been working for a penny for many years, although he is a first-class specialist. My relative lives with an unloved person. My neighbor does not sue another apartment that flooded her, because she does not believe that she will win the case. When we make no attempt to extricate ourselves from an unpleasant situation, psychologists call it learned helplessness.

Nemogun syndrome

About the essence

If 27-year-old English boatswain Alexander Selkirk had this "syndrome", we would never know the story of Robinson Crusoe. If Mendeleev had abandoned his attempts to systematize chemical elements, he certainly would not have "dreamed" of the table. And yes, if Adolf Schicklgruber had decided to become an artist, who knows, maybe we would only know him as a painter.

But in fact, learned helplessness is not even a syndrome, but simply a character trait (situational or permanent) that a person acquires after several unsuccessful attempts to change the situation for the better. He begins to believe that he will not succeed anyway, and only looks passively at what is happening.

About contradictions

In 1964, an American psychologist - the future founder of the so-called positive psychology - Martin Seligman participated in experiments on dogs within the walls of the University of Pennsylvania laboratory. In part, the goal of the experiments was to form a conditioned reflex in tetrapods - the fear of high sounds. To achieve his goal, Seligman shocked the unfortunate animals (who were sitting in cages, and therefore did not have the opportunity to escape) immediately after the dogs heard a high-pitched sound.


After a while, the cells were opened and the hated sound was turned on again. But, contrary to the expectations of the experimenters, the unfortunates did not run away (to avoid a subsequent electric shock), but lay down on the floor and whined. Such results were in complete contradiction with the then prevailing behaviorism - the direction of psychology, according to which the behavior of humans and animals as a whole obey the "stimulus-response" scheme. Moreover, these reactions, according to the behaviorists of that time, are quite the same type and should always have only benefit for the individual.

A simple example: an apple was taken from a child. He tries to take him away, and even beat the offender with a spatula. The situation in which the child stands silently and does not make attempts to pick up the apple, or perhaps gives the offender one more thing, did not fit into the simple schemes of the behaviorists. But such cases are not uncommon.

It's the same with Seligman's dogs. In theory, they should have run as soon as the cells were opened, but this did not happen. Then the psychologist put forward a revolutionary thesis: dogs remain in cages not because they are not afraid of electric shock, but because they are used to the inevitable: during the experiment they tried to escape more than once, but they did not succeed. Therefore, the dogs resigned themselves - in other words, "learned helplessness."

About dogs

Three years later - in 1967 - Seligman decided to continue his torture of dogs, taking his colleague Stephen Mayer as his assistant. This time, three groups of dogs took part in the experiment. The four-legged members of the first group were able to avoid electric shock by pressing their nose on a special panel (thus the animals turned off the power supply system). Dogs from the second group depended on the actions of the first, that is, their reaction did not affect the result in any way. Animals from the third - control - group did not receive a blow at all.

After some time, all three groups were placed in a box with a partition over which any of the dogs could jump, thus getting rid of the electric shock. It is not surprising that this is exactly what the dogs from the first group did, the very ones that had the opportunity to "cancel" the electric shock by pressing the panel. But the animals from the second group, as expected, did nothing to avoid being hit, but again lay down on the floor and whined. Moreover, each time they got used to the blows of increasing force. Seligman and Meyer concluded that the feeling of helplessness does not cause unpleasant sensations, as such, but the experience of being unable to influence these events. This discovery was so significant that Seligman received the American Psychological Association Award for his theory of learned helplessness in 1976.

About people

In the same year, two other American psychologists continued the study of the phenomenon of learned helplessness. This time the girls are Ellen Jane Langer and Judith Roden. They conducted a famous study at a nursing home called Arden House, Connecticut, USA. No one was forced to suffer here - helplessness was taught gently.

The residents of two floors of a nursing home were randomly selected as participants. The experimental group included residents of the fourth floor (8 men and 39 women), the control group - the second floor (9 men and 35 women). In total - 91 people.

The control group led a normal life, they were surrounded by the care and attention of the staff. The experimental group was destined to bear increased responsibility for themselves and their actions.

The administrator of the nursing home called a meeting in the lobby of each floor. He addressed the residents of the second floor with the following message: “We want your rooms to look as comfortable as possible and will try to do everything for this. We want you to feel happy here, and we consider ourselves responsible so that you can be proud of our nursing home and be happy here … We will do everything in our power to help you … I would like to take this opportunity and give everyone of you, a gift from Arden House [a clerk walked around and gave each patient a plant]. Now these are your plants, they will stand in your room, the nurses will water and take care of them, you yourself will not have to do anything."

To the inhabitants of the fourth floor, the administrator voiced a similar instruction, but with a completely different meaning: “You yourself must decide how your room will look like, whether you want to leave everything there as it is or if you would like our employees to help you rearrange the furniture … You yourself must tell us your wishes, tell what exactly you would like to change in your life. In addition, I would like to take advantage of our meeting to present each of you with a gift from Arden House. If you decide that you want to have a plant, you can choose the one that you like from this box. These plants are yours, you must maintain and care for them as you see fit. Next week, two nights, Tuesday and Friday, we will be showing the film. You need to decide on which day you go to the movies and if you want to watch the movie at all."

Thus, the residents of the fourth floor could control everything that happens to them and participate in solving important issues for themselves. The second could only indifferently accept their position, and although it was more than bearable, they had no opportunity to influence anything - they had already decided everything for them.

The experiment lasted three weeks. During this time, the medical staff monitored the activity, sociability level, general tone, habits and nutrition of the participants. At the end of the experiment, polls were conducted among the subjects, which showed satisfaction with life.

About responsibility

Residents of the fourth floor, who controlled their lives, felt happier than residents of the second, who received maximum care, but did not have the opportunity to take responsibility for their lives (the average "happiness level" of the first was +0.28, for the second - –0.12). The same was shown by the analysis of their condition. According to the estimates of the medical staff, residents of the fourth floor showed a clear improvement in indicators (+3, 97), while residents of the second floor showed a deterioration (–2, 39). Even in terms of communication, the participants in the experimental group were ahead. The indicator of the time spent on conversations with each other and with the nurses for the inhabitants of the fourth floor was +4, 64, for the second - –2, 14. In addition, the participants in the experimental group were active both in terms of watching a movie and a simple game, the goal of which is to guess the number of sweets in the bank (out of 47 people living on the fourth floor, 10 took part in the game, and out of 45 people living on the second, only one).

After analyzing the results, Langer and Rodin concluded that some of the phenomena that usually contribute to aging - memory loss or decreased body tone - are probably due to the fact that people no longer have the ability to control their lives. And in order to avoid this, it is enough to return to the elderly people self-confidence, the right to choose and make decisions.

Moreover, after six months, the psychologists returned to the nursing home to take measurements again and see if the experiment was continuing. It turned out, how! The nurses showed that the ex-participants in the experimental group continued to feel better (their average overall score was 352.33, while in the control group it was 262.00). The inhabitants of the fourth floor also showed an improvement in their health, while the second, on the contrary, had a deterioration.


The experiment had such a decisive impact that the indicators even touched on mortality! So, over the past period of time in the control group, 30% of people died, and in the experimental group - only 15%. It was these observations that led the leadership of the nursing home to decide to continue to encourage people to strive for responsibility and control over their lives. This time - for absolutely all residents of Arden House.

Other similar experiments showed the same results. Even in conditions where the elderly did not have the opportunity to choose and control their own lives, in some cases they began to commit self-destructive actions (refuse food or medicine). After all, it was the only thing they could still choose.

But it's not just the elderly. Quite young people gave similar reactions, and in different situations. For example, in a crowded elevator, which was perceived as more free and caused less anxiety if the person was near the buttons of the control panel.

About childhood

A person can "learn" helplessness both as an adult (under the influence of some negative circumstances that he could not cope with; most often, this reaction is temporary and directed to certain events), and in childhood - under the influence of all the same circumstances, but, as a rule, already in the parental family. And such experience already forms personal qualities - isolation, emotional instability, excitability, pessimism, timidity, a tendency to feel guilty, low self-esteem and a low level of claims, indifference, passivity and lack of creativity.


The aforementioned Martin Seligman notes that learned helplessness in this case is formed by about eight years. And it can come from several sources: the experience of experiencing unfavorable events for the child, from which he did not have the opportunity to defend himself (for example, offenses inflicted by parents or teachers); death of a loved one or animal; serious illness, divorce or parental scandals; the experience of observing helpless people (both on TV and in life) and the endless willingness of many parents to do everything for their children (collect toys, make the bed, dress, shoe).

It is not surprising that learned helplessness is a trait of the vast majority of people.So much so that whole companies and large work teams suffer from it (among other things, this quality is very contagious and, as research shows, most often manifests itself in teams with authoritarian leadership). There is only one method of dealing with this scourge - psychotherapy. True, it does not always help, and people with learned helplessness, as a rule, have no motivation to go to a specialist. What for? After all, they are used to enduring.

Popular by topic