The Basic Methodological Concepts of Learned Helplessness Genesis

The presented article describes the basic conceptual ideas of the theory of learned helplessness genesis. This new theory is based on the learned helplessness concept of American psychologist Seligman (2006), a theory about the cultural and historical development of the human psyche by Russian psychologist Vygotsky (2013) and ideas of transportive analysis developed by Russian psychologist Klochko (2005). The genesis of learned helplessness is being studied in ontogenesis by the analogy with human psyche development. In clarifying the factors determining the learned helplessness genesis, it is important to consider the role of society within which the formation and development of the child’s personality take place. It is the behavior models of representatives of the closest adult environment, their style of attribution to their life events and events of the child’s life. The common signs of learned helplessness and the four-compound structure of this destructive state are revealed. The vulnerability rating of individual spheres associated with learned helplessness components at different stages of ontogenetic development is described as well as the most influential pathological styles of child-parental relations. The Subjective Questionnaire Assessment of the Learned Helplessness Genesis (Volkova, 2016) was used as a psychological tool for investigating the learned helplessness formation - genesis, which allows building the further strategy of psychological assistance to the person having pronounced features of learned helplessness.

Keywords. Learned helplessness, genesis, subjectiveness, ontogenesis, self-attitude, vulnerability, parental style, and traumatic experience.


Contemporary psychology is raising questions for researchers regarding the harmonization of psychological health, increasing the resilience of a modern personality to the effects of negative factors of the stressful external environment. The realities of life require significant resources from modern people to realize their internal potential, independence, ability to overcome difficulties, and skills to plan activities strategically, be active, and persevere in the pursuit of a concrete result. However, solving these life problems is complicated by the presence of a significant contradiction. On the one hand, a rapidly developing technogenic society declares guarantees for the success and prosperity of a person with freedom, self-identity, autonomy, independence, the ability to take responsibility for one own life, uniqueness, and creative adaptation, the ability to change, and develop the world through his unique ways, free and capable of pronounced search activity. On the other hand, the same society pursues the hidden goal of nurturing a person who is comfortable, non-free, flexible, manageable, capable of changing the world within strict limits, predictable, and helpless. Using the term society in this context, we emphasize its polysemantic meaning. We mean society as any association of people, whether it can be a family, educational institution, labor team, or community on interests (Seligman, 2018). 

Socio-economic conditions, combined with a reduced level of public mental health, contribute to the formation of learned helplessness from the preschool age, including it in all aspects of life as one of the main mechanisms of human adaptation. The action of the helplessness mechanism itself is reinforced by the belief that the initiative is meaningless, activity is futile, creativity is reprehensible, and canons and regulatory norms of activity are spelled out from the outside ( Miller & Seligman, 1976; Seligman, 2006; Volkova, 2018). Confidence in own strength and the positive outcome of any life situation is an integral part of the ability to initiate own activity and to be responsible for its result (both positive and negative). Such an approach forms a subjective attitude to life, activity, personal space, and the temporal continuum (Klochko & Galazhinskij, 2012; Leontiev, 2006; Volkova, 2018; Seligman, 2019). Accordingly, there is an applied and fundamental need to develop a specific technology for the study of the learned helplessness genesis, as well as a system of psychological assistance that can take into account the influence of external and internal factors, psychological and somatic, determining the genesis of the learned helplessness at different stages of human life and in different conditions of its implementation.

Numerous studies organized by Seligman (2006) and his followers since the beginning of the 70s of the 20th centuries made a significant contribution to clarifying the essence, structure, and conditions for the formation of the learned helplessness state (Maier & Seligman, 1975; Peterson, 1993). Interdisciplinary studies at the intersection of physiology, psychophysiology, and psychology, presented by several research concepts and paradigms, set the main directions in the study of the learned helplessness issue. Even in the studies of the great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, one can find the prerequisites for the emergence of ideas about learned helplessness. In Western science, attempts have been made to study learned helplessness as a state arising as a reaction to uncontrolled, mainly negative events, as well as to explain its connections with the optimistic or pessimistic attributive style of explaining and perceiving life events (Overmier & Seligman, 1967; Seligman, 1975; Fincham, 1986; Peterson, 1993).

In Russian psychological studies, attempts have been made to describe the phenomenon of learned helplessness as a stable trait at a personality level, which is a set of personal features combined with a pessimistic attributive style, neurotic symptoms, and certain behavioral features, the so-called symptom-complex of personal helplessness (Davydova, 2009; Tsiring, 2010; Vedeneeva, 2009; Yakovleva, 2008; Zabelina et al., 2016). At the present stage of psychological science development, in the context of the learned and personal helplessness phenomena study, research is underway on coping strategies, psychological defence mechanisms, socio-psychological features of learned helplessness, and its opposite state of independence. Factors contributing to the formation of the personal helplessness symptom-complex, the structure and psychological content of the autonomy or independence phenomenon are studied, and correlations of the learned helplessness with the state of somatic health at different stages of a person’s life are detailed. Research is being carried out on positive personality constructs that increase resistance to the formation of helplessness (Fincham, 1986; Peterson, 1993; Seligman, 2010; Maier & Seligman, 2016; Volkova, 2020).

However, contemporary basic research does not reflect the problem of studying the learned helplessness genesis. Nevertheless, its clarification is seen to be important from the point of view of identifying those “weak” points in the process of ontogenetic development of a person who, being under the negative influence of pathological factors and conditions that determine the learned helplessness genesis, can become the target of psychological intervention aimed at psychological correction, psychotherapy, and psycho prevention of learned helplessness.


In the presented theory, the concept of the learned helplessness genesis is proposed and substantiated at the intersection point of the basic principles of the learned helplessness theory (Seligman, 1975), the concept of the cultural and historical development of the human psyche (Vygotsky, 2013) and the method of transportive analysis (Klochko, 2005).  The inhibition of motor activity characterizes learned helplessness, biological motivation is weakened, learning ability is lost, and somatic disorders appear. There is a tendency to generalize, which has arisen in one sphere of life and is transferred to others and rejection of attempts to solve problems based on internal resources. 

The analysis of contemporary psychological studies showed that the following points are distinguished as specific features of learned helplessness: violations in motivational, emotional, volitional, and cognitive spheres. The low level of strong-willed qualities development of personality with signs of learned helplessness appears because cognitive features that characterize personal helplessness make it difficult to set goals due to the pessimistic attributive style, reduced creativity, and rigidity of thinking. External motivation and locus of control make a person dependent on other people or circumstances. A pessimistic forecast destroys the meaning of the actions taken, which weakens the strength of motives, complicates the decision-making process, and entails the rejection of the intention and execution of the action

A person’s sense of uncontrollability of upcoming and current events entails the development of actual insufficiency of activity control, which subsequently has a direct impact on the reduction of motivation, the ability to learn new ways of mastering life reality, and the manifestation of such negative emotions as an increased level of anxiety, frustration, depression, feeling hopelessness, predestination of being and sadness. The uncontrollability of any activity's consequences naturally forms pessimism, passivity, a steady unwillingness to overcome difficulties, an objective (not subjective) attitude to the environment, and the desire to shift responsibility for the consequences of any activity to external determinants. Moreover, the decisive factor in the mechanism of the learned helplessness emergence is not severe emotional experiences associated with the failure of efforts but an insurmountable sense of uncontrollability, indifference, and despair.

The cultural and historical concept of Vygotsky (2016) includes three complementary parts. The first part contains postulates describing a person's relationship with a natural, authentic derivation (man and nature). Its main content can be formulated in the form of two theses. The first is the thesis that during the transition from animals to humans, there was a radical change in the relationship of the subject with the environment. Throughout the existence of the animal world, the environment acted on the animal, modifying it and forcing it to adapt to itself. With the advent of man, the opposite process is observed: man acts on nature and changes it. The second thesis explains the existence of mechanisms for changing nature by man. This mechanism is the creation of tools and the development of material production.

The second part of Vygotsky’s (2013) concept is devoted to the ratio of man and his inner world (man and his psyche). The first provision is that the mastery of nature did not pass without a trace for man, he learned to master his psyche and he had higher mental functions expressed in forms of arbitrary activity. Under the highest mental functions, Vygotsky (2016) understood the ability of a person to direct his efforts to remember some material, pay attention to an object, and organize his mental activity. The second provision is that a person mastered his behavior and nature with the help of tools, but special psychological tools referred to as psychological tools “signs”. As the “signs” of Vygotsky (2013) called artificial means by which a primitive person was able to master his behavior, memory, and other mental processes. At the early stages of the psyche development, the signs were subjects (nodule for memory, a notch on a tree, etc.). The sign itself is not related to a specific activity; its purpose is to recall a certain action, which is important to reproduce. Faced with a similar symbol, a person connected it with the need to perform some specific operation. So, symbol signs were the trigger mechanisms of higher mental processes; they acted as psychological tools.

The third part of Vygotsky’s theory (2013) is devoted to the study of genetic aspects, namely the problem of the sign’s origin. The basis for the third part of the cultural and historical concept was the postulate, claiming that a person, as a species, was formed in the process of labor. In the process of jointly organized labor activity, communication between its participants took place using special signs defining the specific functions of each of the participants in the labor process. It is believed that in the initial stages, the functions of the person ordering and the person executing these orders were separated and the whole process; by definition, Vygotsky (2013) was neuropsychological, that is, interpersonal. Then this relationship turned into a relationship with self, that is, neuropsychological. The process of turning psychological relations into intra-psychological is called interiorization. During interiorization, external means signs (notches, knots, etc.) are transformed into internal ones (images, elements of internal speech, etc.). In ontogenesis, according to Vygotsky, similar mechanisms are observed. At first, the adult acts as a word on the child, prompting him to do something. Then the child adopts the way of communication and learns to influence the word on the adult. In the third stage, the child begins to influence himself with a word (Vygotsky, 2013).

Ontogenetically, at the initial stage, an adult evaluates a child's actions from outside: initiates the action and assesses it, often negatively, underestimating the degree of efforts and directional intentions invested by the child (often falsely justifying this with a special form of incentive, motivation). At the next stage, the child, being the initiator of the action himself and receiving at the first attempts to achieve what is desired, a result that does not meet expectations, becomes convinced of the objectivity of the external negative assessment, and stops trying to achieve a result close to the ideal model. At the third stage of the internal feeling of learned helplessness formation, the limiting child influences his actions, intentions, motives, will, emotions, thoughts, and, therefore, development - already without the influence of an adult (Vygotsky, 2016). Thus, the closest social environment is crucial to the learned helplessness genesis.

Studying not only the learned helplessness phenomenon content but its genesis, it is necessary to have in the arsenal those methodological tools that will detect the signs of genesis in the stages and periods of the already happened, past life of a person, as well as determine the degree of influence and potential impact of this phenomenon on the subsequent experience of human life. Accordingly, only a method that allows one to investigate the moment the consequences of the past and objectifies potentially possible variations in the future can create conditions for restoring a holistic picture of what is happening in a person (Klochko, 2008). This method of transflective analysis is supposed to investigate a personality at the present moment, taking into account the experience that this person owns due to the past life, as well as hopes and expectations concerning potential prospects (Klochko, 2005). 

In this regard, a question arises regarding the objectivity obtained during the study of information, which (in a significant proportion) relates to the period of a person’s life that is either no longer (past) or it has not yet happened (future). The answer to this dilemma can be found in Klochko (2007) reasoning about the state of contemporary psychology as a science of humankind: “Psychology is already frankly tired without a person. It has accumulated a large amount of information about the psyche and consciousness, some of which is simply redundant since it is no more than the scaffolding of the building of psychological science under construction…. Studying the psyche outside of man, science gradually ceases to be a science: it begins to wonder why this complex device is needed and what function it performs (in the positive language of science, it is called hypothesis nomination). It seems that it will take considerable time to overcome the textbook truths claiming that the psyche reflects, consciousness regulates, need finds itself in the subject, attention elects, etc. All this is forced attribution of the role of an active principle to private systems in the absence of a true subject activity - a person” (Klochko, 2007, p.159).

This vision of the psychological problems increases the significance of the subjective attitude of a person to the surrounding reality (by and large, it cannot be objective a priori), to processes, what is happening within the framework of internal experiences, the attitude to these experiences, and to the experience itself, which would seem to be subject to dry objective measurement in units of events, injuries, discoveries, actions, acts, products, relationships, but which remained, remains and will remain that baggage, which from the inside is different than can be seen from the outside, substrate. One more thing is important in designing the basic methodological concepts for the learned helplessness genesis study – the structure of the learned helplessness state, which is presented in four major compounds, reflecting the violations in four personality spheres: emotional, motivational, will, and cognitive. 

The following specific markers can identify the learned helplessness in the mentioned spheres.

In clarifying the factors determining the learned helplessness genesis, it is important to take into account the role of society within which the formation and development of the child’s personality take place. It is the behavior models of the closest adult environment representatives, their style of attribution to their life events and events of the child’s life that is a prerequisite for the formation of personal optimism/pessimism of the child, which, being, in fact, a type of attribution, allows or does not allow the learned helplessness phenomenon to arise and gain.

The study of the learned helplessness genesis is achievable in a situation of increasing the significance of a person’s subjective perception of his own experience of living in the stages of his life, namely, the study of the past experience, the measurement of the available present, the nomination of hypotheses regarding the foreseeable and unobservable future (which is the key of the helplessness phenomenon is indicated by the level of realized potentials “I can/cannot”), specifically - using the principles of transflective analysis of Klochko (2005, 2007, 2008).

Founding these mentioned ideas as the methodological basis of the study allowed us to design and develop the authentic Questionnaire of Subjective Assessment of the Learned Helplessness Genesis (Volkova, 2018), which is aimed at studying the factors that influenced learned helplessness formation. The reflexive analysis allows revealing markers that can be necessary for further development of psychological assistance in the case of the learned helplessness state finding. 

The logic and principles of the Questionnaire design can be summarized, including the importance of subjectiveness in self-perception and self-assignment, understanding of what learned helplessness and its 4-compound structure, formation of learned helplessness by analogy with the processes of interiorization of the sign system in the process of ontogenetic development – studying the relations with others and self-perception, and significance of a person’s subjective perception of his own experience (past, present, and future).

The questionnaire is composed of three main blocks (past: pre-school age 5-7 years, junior school-age of 7-11year, adolescence 12-16 years, and youth 16-19 years; present: actual state; future: “I will be in…”). Each of the blocks contains questions aimed at clarifying the subjective perception of the level of formation of personal spheres related to learned helplessness and the general social situation of the formation of the respondent's personality. The list of questions:

Estimation of the health state (somatic status: did you embrace yourself as healthy or not?)

Estimation of the emotional state (what were the predominant emotions and feelings during this period?)

Estimating the motivation level (was you motivated to engage in any activities?)

Estimation of the willpower level (was it easy or difficult for you to overcome difficulties?)

Estimating the cognitive sphere (did you embrace yourself as a smart kid or not?)

Locus of control estimation (who controlled all your activities: you or someone else?)

Describe the general atmosphere in child-parental relations.

Describe general characteristics of relations with the social environment (friends, relatives, teachers).

Six-year implementation of this authentic questionnaire allowed us to sum up some vivid results in a kind of matrix for identifying targets of psychological intervention aimed at reducing learned helplessness. We analyzed the system of the hierarchical significance of learned helplessness structural components at different stages of its formation during periods of ontogenetic development affected in this study (Volkova, 2020). As generalized results, the table demonstrates a kind of rating of learned helplessness components, among which every one of them plays an important role in the genesis of learned helplessness and, therefore, can be a marker of its formation, as well as become the goal of corrective and preventive measures that will be proposed.

Discussion and Conclusion

The main goal of our study was to create an effective research tool to identify the targets of psychological assistance for people with varying degrees of learned helplessness. As theoretical and methodological foundations of the study, we adopted the combined concepts of American and Russian psychology, which, in our opinion, significantly complement and strengthen each other precisely in the context of studying the specifics of the learned helplessness genesis. Applying the described above basic methodological concepts for the learned helplessness genesis study allowed us to develop an authentic diagnostic tool that reveals the weakened spheres of personality during ontogenetic development and cases of traumatic experience that contributed to learned helplessness formation. 

The data obtained by means of the Questionnaire of Subjective Assessment of the Learned Helplessness Genesis can be used for the development of the specific system of psychological assistance, which covers such forms of its organization as psychological correction, psychotherapy, and psychological prevention; and is built in the logic of transflective analysis as a method that allows covering three main time intervals of a person’s life; that is, psychotherapy is focused on working out the negative experience of the past, which created the prerequisites for the appearance of a state of learned helplessness, psycho correction is centered on solving problems that are actualized at the moment of the present, psycho prophylaxis is aimed at preventing potentially possible difficulties associated with the state of learned helplessness in the future. Thus, the new theoretical model developed by us and the author’s Questionnaire of Subjective Assessment of the Learned Helplessness Genesis partially solves the problem of studying the specifics of the genesis of learned helplessness, opening up prospects for new narrower research projects in this scientific field.


Davydova, E. S. (2009). To the question of studying the peculiarities of the helplessness-independence structure in junior schoolers with varying degrees of its expressiveness. Materials of the All-Russian Electronic Scientific Conference based on the Internet Forum. Krasnoyarsk. 2009/Davydova.pdf.

Fincham, F. D. (1986). Learned helplessness in humans: A developmental analysis. Developmental Review, 6(4), 301-333.

Klochko, V. E. (2005). Self-organization in psychological systems: the problems of the formation of the mental space of personality (introduction to the transactive analysis). Tomsk: Publishing House of Tomsk State University. 

Klochko, V. E. (2007). Post-classical transspective of psychological science. Bulletin of Tomsk State University, 305(1), 157-164.

Klochko, V. E. (2008). Patterns of psychological knowledge development: The problem of meaning in the prism of transspective analysis. Value foundations of psychological Science and Psychology of Values, 32 (1), 41-61.

Klochko, V. E., & Galazhinskij, E. V. (2012). System anthropological psychology: Methodological foundations. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 5(1), 81-98.

Leontiev, D. A. (2006). Personal potential as the potential of self-regulation: Scientific notes of the Department of General Psychology. Moscow: Moscow State University, Smysl. 

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105(1), 3-46.

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 1-19. 

Miller, W. R., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1976). Learned helplessness, depression, and the perception of reinforcement. Behavior Research and Therapy, 14(1), 7-17.

Overmier, J. B. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1967). Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(1), 28-33.

Peterson, C. (1993). Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. New York: Oxford University Press.  

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: Freeman. 

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Authentic happiness. Moscow: Sofia. 

Seligman, M. E. P. (2010). Flourish A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press. 

Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). Post-traumatic growth and building resilience. In HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On Mental Toughness. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2019). Positive psychology: A personal history. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 15 (1), 1-23.

 Tsiring, D. A. (2010). Psychology of personality helplessness: A study of the levels of subjectivity. Moscow: Akademiia.

Vedeneeva, E. V. (2009). Interrelation of a motivational component of personal helplessness and leading activity on different age stages. Bulletin of Tomsk State University, 322, 186-189.

Volkova, O. V. (2018). Learned helplessness: Genesis research technology. Novosibirsk: Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science.

Volkova, O. V. (2020). Development of personality with learned helplessness at different stages of ontogenesis. Bulletin of Kemerovo State University, 22(2), 397-408.

Volkova, O.V. (2016). Prospects of a complex research model application in designing the program aimed to diagnostics, correcting and prevention of the learned helplessness in ontogenesis. Siberian Psychological Journal, 61(1), 47-63.  

Vygotsky, L. S. (2013). Collected works: Children’s psychology, (Vol. 4). Moscow: Book on Demand. 

Vygotsky, L. S. (2016). History of the development of higher mental functions. Moscow: Yurite. 

Yakovleva, Y. V. (2008). Independence phenomenon (on data of youthful age). Bulletin of Kostroma State University: Pedagogics, Psychology, & Social Work., 14(5), 161-165.

Zabelina, E. V., Tsiring, D. A., Vedeneyeva, E. V., & Kuznetsova, D. K. (2016). Features of motivational component of independence at young scientists as a factor of professional activity success. Akmeology, 3(59), 73-80.