Learned helplessness explains the etiology of depression
Martin Seligman proposed a cognitive explanation of depression called learned helplessness in 1974. Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they can do so. Seligman based this theory on experiments conducted on dogs. When dogs were subjected to mild electric shock delivered through the floor of their housing but had access to a partitioned area, escape was possible by crossing over to the shock-free area. When restrained, however, and escape was no longer possible, they eventually stopped attempting to escape. When subjected to repeated inescapable shocks in this way, they failed to escape even when it was later possible to do so. They also exhibited some symptoms associated with depression in humans, such as loss of appetite. Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale (1978) reformulated this hypothesis. They included a cognitive process whereby an individual could attribute the cause for an event. The attribution model is based on three causal dimensions: whether the cause is internal or external to the individual, whether the cause is stable and permanent or transient in nature, and whether it is global or specific. Abramson et al. argued that people who attributed failure to internal, stable, and global causes were more likely to become depressed. This is because they would conclude that they could not influence or control the situation for the better. Abramson, Metalsky, and Alloy (1989) further revised the model, integrating Beck’s theory with a reformulated learned helplessness model to derive the ‘hopelessness theory of depression’. The theory considers depression to arise when people with a negative attributional style interpret a stressful life event negatively. These interpretations give rise to hopelessness, an immediate cause of depression.
This theory presents helplessness/hopelessness as a cause of depression. However, whether they are symptoms (or manifestations) rather than a cause of depression remains unclear. Gotlib and Colby (1987) found that people who were formerly depressed are no different from people who have never been depressed in terms of their tendencies to view negative events with an attitude of helpless resignation. This suggests that helplessness could be a symptom rather than a cause of depression. Additionally, it may be that negative thinking generally is also an effect rather than a cause of depression.
Rejecting the premises