Learned Helplessness and the ABCDE Model

Ever felt like what you did didn’t matter? Or you lacked control in situations? Heard about the concept of learned helplessness, but not sure what it is?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may like to keep reading 🙂

In this post I am going to discuss –

  • What is Learned Helplessness?
  • Where did “Learned Helplessness” originate?
  • What is Explanatory Style?
  • Using the ABCDE Model…

Let’s get started…


What is Learned Helplessness?

There are many explanations on learned helplessness on the internet, including –

  • “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.” ~ Google
  • “…is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behaviour would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness.” ~ Wikipedia
  • “…a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.” ~ Britannica.com
  • “the act of giving up trying as a result of consistent failure to be rewarded in life, thought to be a cause of depression” and a mental condition in which one becomes unable to help oneself due to previous failed attempts at controlling one’s life; also, a condition in which a person establishes and maintains contact with another by adopting helpless, powerless stance” ~ Dictionary.com


Where did “Learned Helplessness” originate?

The term “learned helplessness” came about in 1968 when Martin Seligman, Steve Maier and Bruce Overmier were studying dogs. What they discovered was the dogs who experienced painful electric shocks could not modify their actions and in the end stopped trying. Even though the dogs could have easily escaped, they passively accepted the shocks.

Seligman (2002) indicated,

“This finding captured the researchers attention in learning theory, because animals are not supposed to be able to learn that nothing they do matters – that there is a random relationship between their actions and what befalls them. The basic premise of the field is that learning only happens when an action (like pressing a bar) produces an outcome (like a food pellet) or when the bar press no longer produces the food pellet. Learning that the food pellat comes randomly whether you press the bar or not is held to be beyond the capacity of animals (and humans, too). Learning of randomness (that nothing you do matters) is cognitive, and learning theory is committed to a mechanical stimulus-response-reinforcement view, one that excludes thinking, believing and expecting. Animals and humans, it argues, cannot appreciate complex contingencies. they cannot learn they are helpless. Learned helplessness challenges the central axioms of my field.” (page, 20).

One thing that is worth noting about the experiments on learned helplessness is that not all rats and dogs became helpless. One in three never gave up, no matter what the researchers did (which also has implications for life) – which meant that two out of three subjects experienced learned helplessness when they experience a situation they had no control over.

So, what was the difference between the 1 out of the 3 subjects that didn’t experience learned helplessness and the 2 out of the 3 that did? The answer turned out to be something called explanatory style


What is Explanatory Style?

Explanatory style is your way of explaining about events that happen to you. It is a habit of thought learned in childhood and /or adolescence. Seligman (1990), says “your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world – whether you think you are valuable and deserving or worthless and hopeless.” 

There are 3 dimensions to your explanatory style –

  • Permanence (is about time): temporary v’s permanent,
  • Pervasiveness (is about space): specific v’s universal, and
  • Personalisation : internal v’s external.

By identifying your explanatory style, you can see if it is more pessimistic or optimistic. The explanatory style of a pessimist is –

  • Permanence (is about time): permanent (i.e. thinking in “always” and “never”),
  • Pervasiveness (is about space): universal (i.e. people who catastrophise – have a challenge or failure in one area of their life and allow if to spread to other areas and believe bad event have universal causes), and
  • Personalisation: external (i.e. blame other people or external events).

The explanatory style of an optimist is –

  • Permanence (is about time): temporary (i.e. thinking in “sometimes” and “latelys”),
  • Pervasiveness (is about space): specific (i.e. optimistic believe that bad events have a specific cause and good events will enhance everything), and
  • Personalisation: internal (i.e. take responsibility and cause good things).

Using the ABCDE Model

By using the ABCDE Model you can start to change your explanatory style from pessimism to optimism. What is the ABCDE Model? The ABCDE Model has been adapted by Martin Seligman from Albert Ellis’s ABC Model.

The ABCDE Model is where –

  • A stands for Adversity (i.e. the situation that triggers the response)
  • B stands for Beliefs (our thoughts/interpretation of the situation/event)
  • C stands for Consequences (the way we feel or behave)
  • D stands for Disputation (effort to argue and dispute beliefs)
  • E stands for Energisation (outcome or effects from redirecting your thoughts).


As you can see by the above diagram, we tend to blame ‘A’ (the antecedent) for ‘C’ (the consequences), however it is actually ‘B’ (our beliefs) that make us feel the way we do.

Once we can see this, we can then dispute the way we are looking at a situation. Disputing our beliefs can help us see the situation in a new light and change the way we feel.


Over to You…

I hope this article has given you some insight in to learned helplessness and ways you can transform it. If you have any questions, please write them below in the comments.

Also, if you are ready to reclaim your courage and take the next step towards freedom and opening your heartwhy not join our Toolkit?


Reference –

Seligman, M. (1990). Learned Optimism. NSW, Australia: Random House.

Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness – Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. NSW, Australia: Random House.

You can read more on the learned helplessness research here.

1 Comment

  • Melissa

    Reply Reply November 13, 2020

    Great insight into looking at a negative situation

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field