Learned Helplessness of Learning

This post was written by Nick Leffler (@technkl) and Mark Britz (@britz).

Discovery and exploration is how we learn about the world from the start. Then comes the formal education, where we’re told what to learn and when to learn it.

Recall the days of high school when you travelled from class to class, instruction neatly modularized into timed categories of science, math, art, etc. There’s one flaw to this formula, we don’t learn in a modularized way.

Over the years of formal education we’ve been conditioned to believe that we learn  when it’s the determined time and place to learn. As kids we explored, before we’re indoctrinated  by the formalities of formal education. Exploration and determining our path in learning is how we learn, exploring our environment.

In a natural progression, Learning & Development has moved to fill the gap of formal learning from school education to organization learning.

Defining Learned Helplessness

With this said about the flow of formal, constrained learning, it’s easy to see a systemic development of learned helplessness and how it affects the ability to own ones learning.

Learned Helplessness contains three elements:

Contingency: There is an uncontrollable contingency, meaning there is a random relationship between the action and the outcome.1

Example: If what is being learned is not deemed important by an authority it is diminished in value (color within the lines!)

Cognition: A person sees a controllable event as uncontrollable (or vice versa) and uses that experience to form future expectations even though they may change.1

Example: Individual was previously reprimanded for using social networks while at work, rather than explaining the learning benefits to change the situation they refrain from doing so in the future because authority figures look negatively on those not following procedure/protocol in organizations.

Behavior: Passive vs active behavior in a situation different from a previous experience which was learned as uncontrollable.1

Example: Rather than continue self-service, individual succumbs to peer/authority pressure OR when needing to develop a new skill, one turns to L&D and a request for training over other options.

To simplify, Learned Helplessness is defined as:

“a phenomenon in which individuals gradually, usually as a result of repeated failure or control by others, become less willing to attempt tasks.” (D.D. Smith, 2001)

There’s an immediate connection between Learned Helplessness and applying it to learning. This connection forms the foundation of Learned Helplessness of Learning.

Learned or Created

Where does this Learned Helplessness of Learning begin and how is it drilled into our heads?

Is Learned Helplessness of Learning learned or created? In other words, are we taught to rely on formal routes for learning or does the reliance subconsciously occur over time from exposure? Or both?

Whatever the answer, exposure to formal routes of learning and learning not to seek own answers has a detrimental effect. People lose the ability to seek answers and explore the world, rather relying on others to provide them the answer.

No longer is learning that thing we did when we were a child, that learning experience we called life. There’s something to learn from children and their natural curiosity. They have a limitless interest in the world and  know nothing about when and where learning should take place. How do we awaken the child within?

The Challenge

One of the challenges of overcoming Learned Helplessness of Learning  is what’s known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance prevents a person from recognizing that there is a problem with being reliant on formal instruction. It somehow becomes okay to rely on formal instruction which becomes the only way to learn a new topic. Additionally, leaders justify and support training over other avenues due to the financial investments they made in it.

Being taught that there are few options when it comes to learning can have detrimental effects on a person. The Arden House Nursing Home was a study where two floors were each given different choices (one had a choice, one the lack of). In the end, knowing there is a choice had a positive health effect. Knowing there is a choice of how, when, and from whom you can learn could have positive organizational  effects.

Learn Free

We’re confident this topic will make everyone think about how Learning & Development has filled the role of schools for global organizations, as it did us. A role that perpetuates the dependency on formal instruction.

Take this question Mark proposed and think about how L&D currently operates in many organizations. Think how we can change it to focus on empowering people to learn. What can we do to support employees to support themselves and overcome learned helplessness of learning?


  1. Peterson, Christopher, Steven F. Maier, and Martin E. P. Seligman. Introduction. Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 8-9. Print.