Learned Helplessness: Why People Won’t Work Because They’re Lazy Isn’t Always the Correct Answer

Think about this: people generally don’t avoid work.
Let’s be serious.  Consider this question and answer it honestly: suppose someone offers to support you all your life, but only on one condition: you can never do any productive work.  You’ll spend your life just sitting around.  Would you do it?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t accept that offer and I don’t think many people would.  Think about the hard hours you put into your job, completing a project that you find worthwhile.  You may be tired, but you also find it very satisfying.  In fact, do you know what the best sign of laziness is?  Depression.  It’s where you feel like you don’t do anything.  You just want to sit around, and it doesn’t seem worth it to give any effort.  And that’s not a desirable state.  These people don’t want to work, and that’s because they have this feeling of hopelessness and are severely depressed.  Now what type of people are going to feel this way?  It’s when they have these dead-end jobs that don’t give them satisfaction.
If this is the case, then placing people in desperate poverty is actually not the best way to encourage effort.  In fact, placing them in poverty makes things worse.  It makes them have a sense of helplessness, a sense that things are now out of my control.

Have you heard of Martin Seligman?

He did some research what is now called “learned helplessness.” The experiment was he placed dogs in restraining harnesses: they couldn’t escape, and he shocked them repeatedly.  Then, he took these dogs out of the harnesses and placed them in shuttle boxes: boxes with two compartments and there’s a wooden barrier.  The dog only had to jump over the barrier.

On one side of the compartment, the floor would still shock them.  Now the dogs who have never been shocked would immediately jump over the barrier.  The dogs who were harnessed and were shocked repeatedly stayed in the shocked floor, just waiting for the shocks to stop.  These dogs gave up.  Eventually, these dogs just lied down, whining while they were being shocked.  They even dragged the dogs to the other barrier where they wouldn’t be shocked again.  But as soon as they were placed in the shocked section again, they still wouldn’t escape, but they stayed and they cowered.  They had to be dragged again and again, repeatedly encouraged to escape, until finally they got over their helplessness and started to escape on their own.

Now this has been done on humans as well, not shocking them, but similar modes.  The upshot is that when people give up, we feel disgusted by them.  We say things like, “why don’t they try?  How can we help him if he won’t try?”  It’s the same thing.  Have you known women who won’t make any effort to escape their abusive husbands?  How about students who give up on school?  It’s the same thing: there are long-term impoverished people who have gained this “learned helplessness.”

We often say that people do these things because they choose it.  Sure, but their options are extremely limited.  People sometimes have to choose terrible things because in practical terms, they have no choice.  Prostitution is a good example of this.  Now, I’m sure there are some women for whom sex work isn’t a last resort, but as a deliberate career move, but in many cases they are driven to it out of desperation.  Also, the fact that something unpleasant is the best choice available to someone doesn’t make it ok, if they could be offered something better at little or no cost.  For example, managers in factories in the developing world often refuse their workers sufficient bathroom breaks, deny them drinking water, and fails to follow local laws or health and safety procedures.  So what if working in one of these places is still the best option locally?

In the latest study, the major component of depression was actually unable to work.  http://familyinequality.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/depression-inequality.jpg

People throw in a red herring when they say that if workers were paid US wages in some third-world country, employers wouldn’t be able to hire them.  But the choice isn’t between sweatshops or Western pay and conditions, it’s between the opportunity to earn a decent job or working long hours in poor conditions for barely enough to live on.  Simply saying people should just “buck up” is avoiding the issue.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Economics, Politics, Values, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Learned Helplessness: Why People Won’t Work Because They’re Lazy Isn’t Always the Correct Answer

  1. thekillerj says:

    That is one F’d up experiment with the dogs.

    So, what’s your solution if telling someone to “buck up” isn’t enough?

    • monika says:

      I agree! That is HORRIBLE to do to those dogs. It really upsets me. It is unethical. There had to be a better way to test that theory. I think you said the exact right words in judgement of it.

  2. thekillerj says:

    Man, I don’t like your post bro. I get the psychology behind it, trust me. Your mindset, however, encourages victim stance.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    Ah, remember that “bucking up” is a non-sequitur. So if someone asks me how to buck up someone, I’d say it’s avoiding the issue. The problem isn’t bucking up lazy people; the problem is getting rid of the aspects where they can’t buck up in the first place: in other words, depression.

    I don’t understand your second comment though. You say that you understand it because of the psychology, but you also say that my take on it encourages victim stance. So which premise of the argument are you denying?

    Here’s the argument as I see it:

    1. Learned Helplessness is a condition where one learns to be stuck in a situation because they find no way out. They’ve lost meaning, self-esteem, and/or purpose on trying to live out their day. (Def. of learned helplessness)
    2. If one has learned helplessness, this can lead to depression (not in the sad sort of sense, but a deeper sense, possibly clinical).
    3. No one likes being in poverty. (Assumed from human nature)
    4. If one is in poverty, one will try to get out of it. (Assumed from human nature)
    5. If one is depressed, one has no motivation to do certain actions. (Def. of depression)
    6. If one has learned helplessness, one has no motivation to do certain actions. (from 2, 5)
    7. Getting out of poverty is a certain action. (Def.)
    8. Therefore, if one has learned helplessness, one has no motivation to get out of poverty.

    Ok, so now there’s the argument. You say that you understand the psychology of it, so I’m assuming you see the argument as valid. But now you say that I’m making them victims. Well, if they are depressed from their learned helplessness, then yeah, they are victims, in a sense. I would consider the dogs in the experiment victims because they’ve learned not to achieve their best.

    But now, maybe I’m committing the fallacy of equivocation. So tell me, what do you mean by victim so that we can be on the same page?

    Also, if you don’t agree with the argument above, why so? Is it not valid? If it is, then which premise are you denying? And if so, can you still see the psychology behind it? Help me out here.

  4. thekillerj says:

    The argument makes sense. I wasn’t exactly sober when I initially read your post. haha

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  7. This is brilliant and I suffer from depression and learned helplessness. I have learned no matter how hard I try things will not ever get better so now I dont even bother.

  8. Joanna Wittman says:

    I’m trying to help a family friend who is very intelligent and creative. He’s unemployed, lonely, angry and depressed, about 48 years old and living in his parents back garden in a caravan. I’ve been wondering why he hasn’t worked for many years (he’s outwardly able bodied and presents well enough). Mostly he complains bitterly – that his mother treats him like a child and controls his time in ‘servitude’ (for financial debt he says) and that he is in a terrible situation (arguments etc). Yet he does not mention working and living under a roof of his own. I’ve never heard of ‘learned helplessness’ but your post inspired me to read more as I’m tempted to tell him to GET A JOB! But I’m sure this will be met with resistance his brother calls “extreme laziness”. Yet it seems like depression thats become like quicksand and I’m trying to find a way to help him out. Any suggestions?

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Joanna,

      First of all, I’m not a trained psychologist or therapist, so my answer will come from my experiences and philosophical training. I think simply saying “get a job” is not helpful. Many people think that not working leads to laziness and then depression. In other words, the sequences is like this:
      Not working –> laziness –> depression.

      However, as shown above, the correct sequence is something like this:
      depression –> laziness –> not working.

      So the way out of this funk is to find ways out of depression. It sounds like, based on your post, that it’s not clinical depression. If so, then the way out is to follow these steps, at least that’s how it works for me:

      1. In order to be happy, one must overcome struggles and challenges. These could be big or small things. It could be working on a small project, like a garden or woodwork, or it could be a huge accomplishment, like graduating from college. Imagine a state of not doing anything yet you’d have everything you’d need. While it may be great at first, the challenges are gone and one gets bored quickly. To survive, one needs challenges. I suggest finding some challenges or projects for your family friend to accomplish so that he may overcome them.

      2. In order to be happy, one must flourish. Part of flourishing means to fulfill some sort of function. For example, suppose you had an eagle in a steel cage. You played with it, fed it, and took really good care of it. It may be happy, but it wouldn’t flourish. This is because part of the eagle’s essential function is to fly. If you strip away it’s function, you strip away it’s ability to flourish. In the same way, humans have certain functions that we have to fulfill in order to truly flourish. What is it that you have that your friend doesn’t have that makes you flourish but your friend doesn’t? Find out what functions are missing and try to help your friend have those functions again.

      3. In order to be happy, one must be realize the self. This sounds abstract, but here’s what I mean.
      The effort is to become a certain kind of individual. It is to become not a person, but a kind of person. This is what it means to cultivate the self: creating an art of making yourself. If we start here, we can say that subjectivity is a performative truth where one persuades oneself to make oneself, by devoting to take care of oneself. To perform this, it seems that not only is one doing the action, but one is also becoming the being to perform the self that is doing that action. Moreover, the taking care of the self is not to get back to a lost self, or to liberate an undiscovered self. It is rather to self-create and get a self to emerge that was not originally given.
      It is the activity through which the individual takes on this dynamic relationship to herself that establishes who she truly is. When we lose sight of this we start to accept a static, fixed idea of who and what we are, and then we are inclined to neglect the development of the active relationship, which is the real life and heart of subjectivity. Rather than assuming that facing hardships allows me to discover my true qualities, my true self, I need to recognize that actively facing hardships is what makes me into a certain kind of self.

      By taking care of the self, the subject is not some entity with defined characteristics, but rather the subject is itself a form of power and a product of power. We can gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers. We develop a set of our own goals rather than embrace societal goals.
      Caring for the self, then, is to take these true discourses into an active principle. By performing the action, you are performing a self. You are transformed by what you said. Self-transformation is to become other than what one is by creating new possibilities, new forms of life.

      Part of taking care of yourself, as I see it, is to reflect on what the future is going to be, and then act in the present to reach that future prospect. This means to act courageously and with risk. Yes, it’s going to be painful, difficult, and hard. But you’ll be free, and you can be free to engage in certain practices of the self where you can take care of the self and become a subject.

      I hope this is helpful. Good luck.

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  10. Stephen Hawkins says:

    I am a retired gentleman of advanced years, and have worked very hard to raise my family. However selfish this may sound, I bitterly resent my taxes being spent on providing succour for a malignant underclass.
    I have known families who have never worked a day in their miserable lives, and are quite content to use their children as meal-tickets. One such woman even boasted to a friend that she was trying to get her six year old child categorised as having special needs, as this would attract more benefits. The only thing wrong with this child is that he had the severe misfortune to be born into a family of worthless scroungers.
    I believe in a compassionate health and social welfare system, but hate those who routinely abuse the privileges that the rest of us pay for.
    I am the co-founder and co-editor of the Richard de Meath Blog, and would like to invite anyone reading this article to visit our site. I am not trying to poach people from this site, merely suggesting that you may like to take a look.

    Stephen Hawkins,

  11. Stephen Hawkins says:

    Dear Shaun,
    I have just read your response to another contributor, and remain unconvinced by your sequencing system.
    You clearly state that depression precedes laziness, but my own experience of dealing with the underclass in the UK leads me to a quite different conclusion.
    My chosen profession required me to deal with the bottom 2 or 3% of society on a daily basis. They never appeared to be particularly depressed to me, but they certainly were devious and dishonest specimens.
    The one common denominator which is applicable to the vast majority of the criminal class is stupidity. How anyone can go through compulsory education without learning to read or write to an acceptable standard is quite beyond me, but I am very well aware that it happens.
    Inadequate people breed inadequate people, as I will prove by use of an ancient metaphor: “What’s in the cat is in the kittens.” Seldom were truer words written.
    Education backed up by discipline is the cornerstone of civilisation. Our biggest problem today is the fact that a liberal elite dominate political thinking, and strangle or suppress debate for their own grubby purposes.
    Stephen Hawkins,

  12. Stephen Hawkins says:

    To: Joanna Wittman.
    Dear Joanna,
    The elapsed time since your post makes it unlikely that you will ever read this message, but here it is anyway.
    You are searching for a non-confrontational way to tell your friend that he ought to get a job.
    I would like to suggest that you employ a policy of direct honesty with him. There is nothing at all wrong with pointing out just how unfair it is to live at the public’s expense. A good friend would go on to tell him that he is responsible for himself, and that he shouldn’t place the burden of keeping him on other people’s shoulders.
    He is certainly a creative man, if only in the sense that he is creating a problem for other people.
    Stephen Hawkins,

  13. Kay says:

    I’m attempting to help someone whom doesn’t wish to work in any adverse conditions. Do I start with mental health? I am not rich by any means. I can’t support this person beyond this month. He focuses on getting game systems fixed instead of food and shelter. I don’t understand the disconnect. You must work to survive. I don’t love having to wear so many hats either. No one is going to pay my mortgage or supply electricity. Do some people not long for a spot to call their own? My granny had very little, but she worked hard. She took care of her things. I feel kids today have no values. They look down on dirty jobs. They don’t want to get qualified for premium careers either. I feel like an idiot for taking on someone I thought could be saved. I live next to a community college. He made up a lie about why he couldn’t start college. Hub forced him into a job. Three hours in guy wanted to quit. He gets frustrated at every little thing. I didn’t have clean towels for him. He was to keep his items neat. He starts jesus christ and shit about the situation. I’m not a hotel. How can you open your mouth when YOU are at fault? The more I learn, the more he seems to have some sort of aspergers. My sons also suffer. He has poor muscle tone, can’t stay focused, stuff has to be repeated, doesn’t have any life skills. He is moving to our rental, but if he doesnt pay, then I have to be the bad guy. What are my options in getting mental health service for a young adult?

    • Any animal in the world has to do something to eat. Life is an action. If YOU have to work to support someone, then they, better be keeping your home tip top or it’s time to change the locks. Letting someone waste their life away in YOUR home, quite frankly, is in reality, keeping THEM in a cage.

  14. Shaggy says:

    can you tell me the solution for this Learned Helplessness???
    I am on the edge of getting into it

  15. Ed Jacobsen says:

    Hi Id be very interested in how things are going . We are in a really similar situation as you that the next step feels like we need to boot out a 22 year old gamer , who refuses to look for work, get support, but is happy to live under our roof every day watching screens and getting his mum to fill out forms and run around worrying about him 24 / 7

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