Dad brings home a Lego set. Ian, 6, and his 9 year-old sister Rachel, set to work building spaceships. She's fast and efficient. He fumbles and fails. And he angrily throws the Lego pieces at his sister. "I'm a dumbo," Ian says. "I can't do anything right."
Not surprisingly, Dad wants Ian to feel better.He tells Ian that his incomplete rocket is terrific, that he's "the best rocket maker around," that Ian can grow up to do "whatever you set your mind to." And to make Ian feel better, Dad takes the Lego pieces and builds a rocket for his son.
Wrong. All wrong, says Martin Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania and former President of the American Psychological Association. Dad means well, but he's hurting his kid. Why? First, just about everything Dad says is a lie --- and Ian knows it. Second, by building the rocket for Ian, Dad sends the message that the cure for failure is rescue by another person --- instead of building self-esteem, he's given Ian "a lesson in helplessness." Finally --- and for Seligman, worst of all --- "not only does Ian gravitate to the most pessimistic causes, but his way of reacting to problems is with passivity, giving up, and a whiny inwardness. Ian's learned pessimism is self-fulfilling."
It turns out that, back in the sixties, Seligman and another guy (Maier) were the ones who originally came up with the idea for learned helplessness, a concept which the dominant behaviorists of the time claimed was impossible. Noam Chomsky had already poked a hole in behaviorism in 1959 by showing that human language isn't solely a learned behavior, but Seligman and his research partner Maier managed to conclusively demonstrate a behavior that was based on an animal's expectations, rather than solely on reinforcement (and they did it while they were still graduate students).
The research was compelling enough that a variety of other people began to expand on it, and it was soon discovered that the same principles applied to humans. What was also quickly noticed, though, was that about 1/3 of experimental subjects never learned to become helpless. Seligman and Maier also discovered that it was possible to train puppies in such a way that learned helplessness did not occur, and to retrain dogs out of their pattern of learned helplessness.
Seligman also draws a lot of parallels between helplessness and unipolar depression. In fact, he claims that unipolar depression is basically helplessness writ large. He argues that the conventional view that clinical depression is a biochemical disorder not only is not supported by the evidence, but is specifically contradicted by the fact that only a few generations ago, the incidence of depression in Americans was much, much lower than it is now. He argues that it is simply not reasonable to say that human brain chemistry has changed that much in only two or three generations, and therefore, the cause of the massive epidemic of depression that began in the latter half of the 20th century clearly must be something else. Naturally, this view has not endeared him to mainstream psychiatrists or to the mental health business in general, which makes untold billions of dollars selling quick-fix drugs. Seligman argues, though, that the belief that the only cure for depression is a quick fix drug actually contributes to the problem. Why? Because the belief that we are powerless to better our condition contributes to a feeling of helplessness, which in turn makes depression either more likely, or harder to come out of.
Anyway, Seligman's research after 1975 focused on that interesting 1/3 of subjects who never learned to be helpless. What was different about those people, and could it be used to help other people? And how could human beings learn to break out of patterns of learned helplessness?
I'm not far enough into the book yet to offer a very conclusive explanation, but optimism is apparently the key, and the key to optimism is, according to Seligman, how we explain to ourselves the good things and bad things that happen to us. The book includes a 48-question questionnaire that Seligman and his research partners developed to quantify optimism in people. Optimism and pessimism are measured along two main axes: how we account for the bad things, and how we account for the good things. Within those two axes are three further dimensions, namely whether the explanations are permanent, personal and/or pervasive. All six of these dimensions are rated on a scale of zero to seven (IIRC--I actually didn't get higher than a five on any scale). The three "bad" axis numbers are combined into an overall bad rating, and the three "good" axis numbers are combined into an overall good rating. Then the bad rating is subtracted from the good rating to obtain a grand total score.
HERE IS THE TEST:
Models of Depression
Sarah E. Bender
University of Richmond
Though about 16 million Americans suffer from depression, the causes of this disease are as of yet uncertain. There has been research into a number of different theories about the cause of depression. Two of the psychological theories that have been developed are Seligman's learned helplessness model of depression and Beck's cognitive model. The basis of the learned helplessness model is that unavoidable aversive events in a person's life can cause that person to feel a complete lack of control and to begin to act passively and become depressed due to this perception. Beck's theory posits that a person's natural vulnerability to depression according to his or her dysfunctional attitudes interacts with negative life events to produce or prevent depression. Though the theories differ in model, they have both been experimentally supported and can coexist and explain different aspects of depression, as different people exhibit different reactions to stressful life events and the onset of depression.
It is estimated that around 16 million Americans suffer from depression each year. This means that about 3% of all men and 9% of all women in the United States are experiencing depressive symptoms at any given point in time (American Psychological Association, 1994). It is also generally accepted that 1 in 5 people in the world will develop depression sometime in their life (Downing-Orr, 1998). These statistics make it easy to see why depression has long been a highly researched area of psychology and biology. And though there have been many years of research into the etiology of this disease, it is still not understood exactly what causes depression. Therefore, the debate continues to ensue between cognitive and behavioral psychologists, psychiatrists, and geneticists, to name a few.
Depression is more then just sadness. There are a number of symptoms that are typically associated with clinically depressed patients. The following is a list proposed by Klerman (1988):
1. Depressed mood.
2. Anhedonia, or lack of pleasure.
3. Feelings of fatigue.
4. Slowing of speaking, thinking, and moving abilities.
5. Changes in appetite.
6. Sleep disorders.
7. Physical problems.
9. Lessened libido, or sexual interest.
10. Lessened interest in usual activities, whether work or play.
11. Difficulty concentrating.
12. Feelings of worthlessness, self-criticism, and guilt.
14. Lowered self-esteem.
15. Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and negativity.
16. Thoughts about death, suicide.
Depression is a very disheartening disease to have. Downing-Orr (1998) describes the world a depressed patient lives in as "colorless, gray, and lacking in beauty" (p.30). Therefore, the goals of research into depression are not only to determine what causes it but also to design the most successful treatment therapies.
This paper will attempt to summarize and compare the main points and support for the behavioral and cognitive theories of depression and to integrate them into an interactive theory about what causes depression. Both of these theories have valid arguments as well as supporting scientific evidence; however, they are most useful as predicting and diagnostic tools when viewed in light of one another and used in conjunction with each other.
Pavlov and dog saliva
Behavioral psychology owes much of its credit to the foundational work of Ivan Pavlov around the turn of the 20th century. Pavlov researched, named, and classified the phenomenon of conditioning, a form of learning. In his experimentation, Pavlov paired meat powder (the unconditioned stimulus) with a ringing bell (the conditioned stimulus). The dog salivated at the smell of the meat powder. However, Pavlov found that the dog continued to salivate at the ringing of the bell even when the meat powder was no longer present. The dog had been conditioned, or unconsciously trained, to respond to the sound of the bell in the same way it responded to the smell of the meat powder. This type of conditioning is known as classical or Pavlovian conditioning (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1993).
The Behavioral Therapy of Depression & Learned Helplessness (cont'd)
The Behavioral Therapy of Depression & Learned Helplessness (cont'd)
Seligman and Yoked Dogs
Martin Seligman expanded the conditioning research done by Pavlov in his own experiments with dogs. Seligman and Maier (1967) conducted a series of experiments to test the effect of conditioning on the behavior of dogs in certain situations of control. The researchers divided the subjects into two groups the "Escape" group and the "Yoked" group. (A "Normal" group which received no training in the first part of the experiment was tested as well .) The dogs were placed in a testing unit strapped into a rubberized, cloth hammock through which their legs could hang. Electrodes, to be used in delivering an electric shock, were attached to the dogs' hind feet. On either side of the dog's neck were panels which the dog could press by turning its head. The Escape group went through escape training in which they received shocks through the electrodes on their feet. The dog could escape, or end, each shock by pressing one of the nearby panels with its head. The Yoked group went through a similar training with one major difference in their condition. For this group, the termination of the shocks was uncontrollable by the dogs. They would continue until the programmed duration of the shock had ended, regardless of whether the dog had pressed one of the panels.
The testing part of the experiment took place 24 hours after the dogs had completed their respective trainings. In this stage, the dogs were exposed to a conditioned-unconditioned stimuli pair to test their responses. Each dog was tested in a two-way shuttle bow with two compartments separated by a shoulder-height barrier. An electric shock, administered through the grated floor, was the unconditioned stimulus and was paired with the conditioned stimulus, extinguishing the lights illuminating the boxes. The escape from the shock in this stage was jumping over the barrier into the other side of the box. Trials in this avoidance training were done with both the Escape group and the Yoked group, and latency between the presentation of the conditioned stimulus, the lights, and the dog's appropriate reaction of jumping over the barrier was measured.
The results of this experiment were very interesting. Seligman and Maier found that the dogs in the Escape group, who were exposed to the escape training in which they had control over the termination of the shock, learned to press the panels to end the flow of electricity. The amount of time it took the dogs to press the panel after the shock began decreased throughout the trials. The dogs in the Yoked group showed learning reflected in behavior as well; however, they learned that pressing the panels had no effect on the shocks, so the panel-pressing of the Yoked group decreased and soon stopped altogether as the trials proceeded. The effect of this training was reflected strongly in the dogs' behavior in the avoidance training in the shuttle boxes. The Escape group and the Normal group showed similar mean latencies for barrier jumping, though there was a higher percentage of dogs in the Normal group than in the Escape group (12.5% as opposed to 0%) who failed altogether to escape the shock on at least 10 of the trial. The Yoked group, however, produced results significantly different from those of the other two groups. The dogs in the Yoked group displayed a significantly higher mean latency for barrier jumping as well as a higher percentage of dogs who failed to escape the shocks altogether (75%).
What does all this mean? Well, it seems that the behavior of the dogs during the avoidance training was based on their learning in the escape training stage of the experiment. The dogs in the Escape group learned that they had control over the shocks; therefore, in the avoidance training, most of the dogs quickly learned to jump the barrier to avoid the shock. The dogs in the Yoked group, however, seemed to have learned from the escape training, in which they had no control, that there was nothing they could do about the shocks; therefore, the vast majority of them did not attempt to escape the shock by jumping the barrier. They had learned that the termination of the shock was independent of their responding.
So what do dogs have to do with depression?
Seligman and Maier (1967) termed the phenomenon they observed in the dogs in the Yoked group "learned helplessness": the dogs failed to escape the shock because they had learned previously, in the escape training, that they were helpless to do anything about the shocks. Therefore, they assumed that the same was true and exhibited the same passivity in the avoidance training even though they truly did have some control in the situation.
Seligman has expanded his famous theory of helplessness into the realm of human behavior. The premise is very similar in application to people: helplessness is a "psychological state that frequently results when events are uncontrollable" (Seligman, 1974, p.9). It occurs when we feel there is no response to a situation we can make to change the course of events. Seligman relates his theory of helplessness to the concept of behavior in response to rewards and punishments. He posits that our "voluntary responses" are those that are affected and changed by rewards and punishments. What this means is that we will perform an action more frequently if we are rewarded for doing it and less frequently if we are punished. However, when the reward or punishment we receive is independent of our actions, we become confused, loose the motivation to perform or avoid performing a behavior, and often become passive in the situation. This occurrence can be seen in Seligman and Maier's dog experiments. Studies have also been done on humans to test this theory. One example is the experiment run by Hiroto and Seligman (1974) using college students to test the effects of controllable versus uncontrollable aversive events on both cognitive tasks and escape rate from a shuttle box. This study indicated that learned helplessness was the reason the subjects exposed to the inescapable events were more likely to fail at the cognitive tasks and at escape.
So where does depression come in? Seligman (1975) compares the characteristics of learned helplessness and depression, suggesting that if two phenomena have the same characteristics such as symptoms, cause, cure, and prevention, they can be considered similar. He examines the six symptoms of learned helplessness that he has identified and compares them with those of depression. These helplessness symptoms are (with comparisons to depression in parentheses):
1. Lowered initiation of voluntary responses (anhedonia of depression)
2. Negative cognitive set (depressed patients show self-reproach and guilt and tend to underestimate their effectiveness)
3. Dissipation of helplessness with time (time almost always plays a role in the alleviation of depression)
4. Lowered aggression (depressed patients show very little hostility toward others)
5. Loss of appetite (depressed patients often show changes in eating habits, especially a loss of appetite)
6. Physiological changes (depression has been shown to produce somatic ailments in some cases)
Miller and Seligman (1974) conducted an experiment similar to that of Hiroto and Seligman (1974) mentioned earlier where they exposed groups of college students to escapable and inescapable noise (as well as no noise) while the students were attempting to perform cognitive tasks. In this study, however, they created experimental groups with both depressed and nondepressed students in them. The result of the study further supported the idea that helplessness has a negative effect on cognitive performance, for the inescapable noise group performed more poorly, as well as the idea that depression affects cognitive functioning, for the depressed subjects performed the worst within the inescapable noise group. This study produced another interesting result. It was found that the depressed students within the escapable noise group performed much better on the task than depressed students in the no noise group. Their performance was equivalent to the nondepressed subjects in the no noise group. This finding seems to indicate that having some degree of control and not feeling completely helpless greatly improves performance, especially for those who are depressed and feel an all-around lack of control. This result is highly supportive of the theorized learned helplessness-depression model.
Seligman (1975) also suggests that the causes of learned helplessness are reflected in the apparent causes of depression. Depression is often sparked by uncontrollable negative events in a person's life, such as death of a loved one or losing a job unexpectedly. The occurrence of such an event gives the patient feelings of helplessness, as his or her actions seem to be incapable of changing anything in the situation.
In summary, Seligman's theory makes sense -- depression and learned helplessness seem to overlap in causes, symptoms, and manifestations in behavior. Experiments with both humans and animals have supported Seligman's hypotheses about the effects of inescapable aversive events on motivation and perceptions of control. Therefore, Seligman's work has successfully contributed to the body of knowledge about and proposed causes of depression with a number of valid points and perceptions.
Despite its support, the learned helplessness model of depression has one major downfall. While some of the events which seem to precipitate the development of depression are out totally of the patient's control (e.g. death of a parent), some are not. The example Seligman gives (Friedman and Katz, 1974) is that of a depressed man who has lost his job due to incompetence. In this situation, the loss of the job was under the man's control, for it was his own incompetence which caused him to be fired. The depressed person may feel helpless, but event and response are not totally independent. Therefore, at least some cases of depression seem not to be parallel to the model of learned helplessness.
The Cognitive Theory of Depression
Another highly researched theory about the causes of depression is the cognitive theory, based on the work of Aaron Beck. Beck's theory emphasizes not a sense of helplessness, as Seligman's does, but a sense of loss (Friedman & Katz, 1974). The depressed person sees himself as lacking something that he has to have in order to be happy. For example, if a student who took great pride in his grades were to fail a class, one would predict that he has a good chance of becoming depressed because he has lost that which he highly valued, his academic success. After this loss, the patient's view of himself begins to be more and more negative. He tends to blame his sadness as well as any aversive events that happen to him on some flaw in himself, and he views the subsequent events in his life in light of that negative trait. Beck states that "the ultimate of his self-condemnation is total self-rejection -- just as though he were rejecting another person" (Friedman & Katz, 1974, p.11) .
This negative self-view is one point of the cognitive triad Beck describes in his model of depression (Beck et al., 1979). The other two points of this depression-causing triad are a view of the outside world as a hostile place and a pessimistic outlook on the future. These three facets make up the thought pattern of the depressed person and explain why he interprets every event in his life during as negative during his depression.
Beck (1976) further develops his theory with the idea that dysfunctional attitudes, made up of the cognitive triad, are part of a vulnerability factor that can contribute to the likelihood of depression. His proposal is that some people are more likely than others to become depressed because of a predisposition to negative or dysfunctional thoughts about the world and about him or herself. Whether someone will become depressed is partially dependent on this factor.
Beck (1976) agrees with Seligman that there are usually one or more precipitating events which triggers the development of depression. However, Beck posits that it is these negative life events in combination with a person's vulnerability factor which determines whether he or she will develop depression. Those people who have a low level of vulnerability may experience stressful life events but may not become depressed; however, if someone with a high vulnerability to depression were to experience the same events, he or she may be more likely to develop depression.
College students as lab rats
A number of studies have been done which support Beck's hypothesis. Joiner, Metalsky, Lew, and Klocek (1999) did a study measuring college students' dysfunctional attitudes, depressive and anxious cognitions, and depressive symptoms before and after midterm exams. They found that students who had high levels of dysfunctional attitudes (i.e. those highly vulnerable to depression) and received poor grades on their midterms showed higher signs of depression. However, those who did poorly on the exams but were not highly vulnerable did not increase in depressive symptoms. This study clearly reveals that attitudes, or vulnerability level, play a strong interactive role in determining whether negative life events result in depression. Another study by Olinger, Kuiper, and Shaw (1987) produced similarly supportive results. In their study, it was found that vulnerability and likelihood of depression were negatively correlated in the presence of stressful life events for a more general populace. A similar study by Kwon and Oei (1992) also showed support for the concept of dysfunctional attitudes as mediator between events and depression.
In summary, Beck's theory is well-researched and well-supported. It explains why stressors that occur in two people's lives can cause depression in one but not in the other. It also offers another perspective on depressed people's reactions to negative life events.
A Blessed Union
As the evidence shows, both the learned helplessness theory and the cognitive theory of depression make good cases for their respective arguments. Beck's cognitive theory of depression, however, seems to have more clear-cut experimental support. The studies mentioned have all produced results which are similar as well as supportive of Beck's proposal that the cognitive triad of dysfunctional attitudes interacts with negative life events to determine whether a person will develop depressive symptoms as a result of these events.
The fact that there is strong support for Beck's depression model does not mean that there is no value to Seligman's learned helplessness theory. It has been shown by a number of studies that learned helplessness is an actual occurrence in both humans and animals.
Therefore, the most logical integration of these two theories is into two different possible reactions to aversive life events. It seems that different people react differently in similar circumstances. For some people, the occurrence of negative events in their world may cause them to feel like they have lost all control of what happens to them. For others, stressors may cause a heightened sense of control as they wrongly take all of the responsibility for the negative events upon themselves. And Beck's theory of mediating vulnerability may apply in cases of both occurrences, but that vulnerability may translate into different reactions by the sufferer. In this way, it is possible for both theories to exist concurrently and to be supportable by evidence in different cases.
Seligman (1975) suggests that the best (and perhaps only) way to treat depression from a learned helplessness theory point of view is "forced exposure to the fact that responding produces reinforcement" (p. 99). In light of the integrated view of behavioral (learned helplessness) and cognitive theories of the causes of depression, it seems that this type of treatment would be best combined with cognitive therapy. It also seems that "forced response" therapy would be most effective with depression patients who have particularly bad anhedonia, or are extremely passive in their situations.
The therapy recommended by Beck to treat depression patients based on his cognitive model concentrates on helping the patient focus on topics other than his or her depression (Beck, 1979). An integral part of cognitive-behavioral therapy is the activity schedule, on which patients mark what they did for each part of the day as well as what their mood was during each activity. One of the purposes of this task is to identify activities which the patient has mastered and to determine which activities give the patient any pleasure. This type of therapy seems helpful in both cases where the patient blames him or herself for the negative events in life and cases in which the patients feels like he or she is helpless.
That's All, Folks
In summary, both Seligman's learned helplessness model of depression and Beck's cognitive mediation model are well-formulated and well-supported. Research has shown that each of them apply in different ways. Therefore, research into the area of depression can best be advanced by combining the two theories, as differences exist in the way people react to negative life events. In some cases, the learned helplessness theory of passivity and lost control may best apply, while in others, a tendency to blame oneself for negative occurrences may make the most sense according to the cognitive model.
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Downing-Orr, K. (1998). Rethinking depression. New York: Plenum Press.
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Hiroto, D.S. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1974). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 311-327.
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Apr 1, 2003 | Dear Cary,
You know that experiment where they shock dogs who try to escape a box, and then the dogs stop trying to escape, and then they don't even have to shock them anymore?
This is like my life. I am stuck in a box; nothing holds me back anymore, but I still cannot get out. There is not really anything terribly painful in my past, just a case of being extremely shy and anxious, not speaking to people some years, never making eye contact, that kind of thing. I just can never help myself, it seems. I am Kafka's roach, you know? Why am I 29? I did nothing to get here. I ought to have evaporated long ago, you know?
Jack in a Box
The point of the experiment, so I take it from reading the abstract, was to show that helplessness can be learned. I completely believe that. I have seen learned helplessness in many people. And it sounds like you have diagnosed yourself correctly. You haven't had some huge trauma. You're not a basket case. You just managed somehow, over a period of years, to learn a pattern of helplessness.
Now, I didn't follow up in the academic stuff to find out how you unlearn it, but in my own experience how you unlearn helplessness is you assiduously cultivate the achievable. What is achievable today? Depends on where you are. You start wherever you are. If you're a drunk, homeless, living in the gutter, you start out with a cot in a shelter. There's your achievement. A cot. Instead of the street, you're in a shelter on a cot. And you start out with not drinking for one full day. There's another achievement. And you go into a roomful of people and you tell your two achievements out loud and all the people applaud and maybe you're thinking they're a bunch of suckers for applauding but at least you know you've got your cot. Doesn't sound like much, but that's how you unlearn helplessness: You achieve the achievable.
You do this every day, and it becomes a habit. After a while, you begin to notice certain structural similarities between getting a cot at the homeless shelter and applying for a job as a journalist or for a research grant in biochemistry or starting a relationship: You make your intentions known and understood. You communicate your qualifications. There's a period of mutual evaluation. There are little promises that must be kept. There are schedules and expectations. And it all starts with getting to your cot at the shelter on time. It starts with wherever you're at.
Where you're at, my friend, happens to be in a little box. So the achievable in your case would be to leave the box today and return to it, just to prove you can do that.
But you might ask why you should leave. What's out there that you want? What's the point? So on your first day, you sit down in your box and think what is your favorite thing in the world that you can buy or get for free just by leaving your box: an ice cream cone, a walk in the park, a swim, a hamburger. I know there is something, some modest pleasure that can be had, and I know that you know what it is. Fix your mind on that thing. Make a plan how to get it. If it takes money, put money in your pocket. Now leave your box, get your favorite thing, and bring it back to the box. Just do that. Leave your box, get your favorite thing, then go back into the box.
When you get back in the box, take stock of your situation. Take note of the fact that you have made a successful excursion. Mark this day on a calendar. Day 1 of liberation from the box.
On Day 2, again, decide on something you really want, something you enjoy that makes you happy that you can get. Leave your box, get the thing, come back to the box, take note of your success, mark it on a calendar. Don't expect it to be easy. Don't expect to change overnight. You may feel panicked or full of despair. Big deal. That's OK. If you have to stop in the store and feel waves of panic, go ahead and feel the waves of panic. Just do your excursion.
The next step is, from the safety of your box, look out on the world and try to determine if there are potential allies out there.
Have you ever noticed any women hanging around the little opening of your box, looking in, jangling their car keys, shining their little key-ring flashlights in there or trying to poke around in your box with a stick? If you've noticed women poking around, there's a good chance that one of them is trying to lure you out of the box.
Often men such as yourself who live in a box and think of themselves as laboratory animals turn out to be sort of cute, mixed-up, skinny bass players who wear obscure Japanese furniture T-shirts. Other times they turn out to be preppy Midwestern boys who wear corduroy and Oxford shirts. Both men are often of interest to a certain kind of woman who has charms all her own, and who may, in fact, also live in a box. All you have to do then is come on out of there, blinking in the bright sun; rub your eyes; all those things can be cute gestures, the blinking in the bright sun, the rubbing the eyes, the looking around like you're not sure where you are. It is a wonderful thing for the box creatures to meet. It isn't that terrible to admit that you live in a box, especially when you find a woman who also lives in a box. You just have to know your limits. Avoid bright sunlight and excessive exertion.