Are we all learning helplessness?

Are we all learning helplessness?

Hi everyone,

Last week I launched my new Building Bridges podcast in English with an interview of Leslie Kern about “Feminist Cities”. This podcast is syndicated across a network of newsletters, including European Straits, Nouveau Départ (in French) and Laetitia@Work. I already wrote about the subject of feminist cities in a previous newsletter, but I believe this conversation with Leslie Kern covers an even broader range of subjects, from urban activism to infrastructure, culture and the impact of the pandemic on cities and work. Don’t miss it! I really loved this interview.

This week, as more and more governments are pushed to make more radical decisions to contain the exponential spread of the virus, we are all dreading further uncertainty, disruptions, and possible lockdowns. Some activities will have to be interrupted again. Many plans will have to be cancelled. Again we’ll have to live in the moment and restrain ourselves from thinking we have power over anything. The situation got me thinking about “learned helplessness” and how it’s related to depression. Are we all like lab animals taught to feel helpless?

person behind fog glass

What is “learned helplessness” and how is it related to our (collective) situation? That’s the theme of this week’s newsletter 🐀 👇

How psychologists theorised about learned helplessness

Throughout the 20th century physiologists and psychologists have carried out countless (cruel) experiments on lab animals to understand how their (and our) behaviour can be conditioned. Over a century ago, Ivan Pavlov obtained a Nobel Prize for Medicine for his principles of classical conditioning that have later been found to operate across multiple behaviour therapies (for example, systematic desensitisation to reduce phobias) and in education. In later decades behavioural sciences explored the cognitive processes in humans, how we process information, perceive our environment, form judgment and make decisions.

From the 1960s onwards more psychologists began to get interested in how and why we get depressed. In particular, new experiments sought to investigate “learned helplessness” in rats: in 1967, Seligman and Maier theorised that when animals learn that outcomes are independent of their responses (i.e. that nothing they do matters), this learning undermines their will to escape. When events are uncontrollable, unpredictable and you have no power whatsoever over them, you won’t even try to escape your situation anymore.

“Learned helplessness” is the behaviour exhibited by a subject who’s endured something very unpleasant repeatedly without having any control over it. Initially, scientists thought that animals learn to accept their powerlessness. When they fail to try and escape the aversive stimulus even when an escape is clearly offered, they were said to have acquired learned helplessness. Even if a door is made available, after a certain point you won’t even try to escape. That’s what torture is about: somebody is said to be “broken” when they’ve acquired the said learned helplessness.

But more recently, neuroscientists showed that the original theory actually had it backwards. The brain’s default mode is to assume there’s no control, and it is power (helpfulness) that is learned, not helplessness. Interestingly we are “naturally” helpless but we learn to have power over our environments. We learn that certain things we do can have an impact. We learn that we can make rules. Obviously some people learn it more than others, as people do not have equal access to power…

Learning power and self-efficacy

We rarely think of power as something that can be learned. Usually it’s seen as something you inherit or something you fight for, not something that has to do with cognition and education. But looking at power through that lens provides interesting insights into the relationship between life experience (life education) and power. Some children are more encouraged to learn power than others. What rules to accept, what rules to bend and what rules to make, for example. And learning power is also somewhat gendered, alas.

There’s one concept that dates back to the 1950s that is specifically about that: the locus of control. It refers to the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their control), have control over the outcome of events in their lives. It’s become an aspect of personality psychology. Your locus is either internal (when you believe you have control over your own life) or external (when you believe your life is controlled by outside factors which you can’t influence, chance or fate, for example).

You’ve probably seen people at work who attribute their success to their own actions only and others who keep thanking fate or their teams for whatever success they encounter. The former have an internal locus of control while the latter have an external locus of control. The former are the same people who blamed the teacher when they had a bad grade at school and blame someone or something else when they encounter failure. To put it bluntly, people with too strong an internal locus of control tend to be assholes. But people with too strong an external locus of control are insecure, and lack ambition and consistency.

Ideally you’d want to have a bit of both, strike a good balance that empowers you to develop ambition and determination, but with enough external locus that you have some humility and will develop an interest in others but yourself.

What’s often referred to as “self-efficacy” is the belief that you can accomplish something. Without it you won’t develop long-term projects. You won’t do much of anything without some degree of self-efficacy. It also plays an important role in health: when people feel that they have self-efficacy over their health conditions, they will follow a treatment and do what’s best for their health (whereas those with no self-efficacy believe that nothing matters and will continue drinking, smoking, or not taking their treatment…)

Depending on your environment and your background, you may be more or less likely to develop an internal locus of control and self-efficacy, you may be more or less likely to just give up or be depressed.

Are we going to lose motivation?

The constant “aversive stimuli” of 2020 over which we seem to have too little control (at least individually) is producing a collective situation of learned helplessness. Under lockdown conditions, we are told to stay put and do nothing. We are asked to be passive and wait. Experiencing stressful situations again and again, are we coming to believe that we are unable to control or change the situation?

2020’s “learned helplessness” leads to increased feelings of stress and depression. Already the signs are ominous that suicides are on the increase all over the world (notably in Japan, in England and Wales). Once you experience a complete lack of control over events around you, you lose motivation. And the problem when you lose motivation is that even when the opportunity does arise for you to improve your circumstances, you won’t take action… and therefore nothing will improve (not the health situation, not the environment, not anything that requires action). With learned helplessness, you become incapable of making decisions even when decisions are necessary.

As professor Martin Seligman (one of the psychologists who defined “learned helplessness” in the first place) explained, three things follow: passiveness in the face of trauma, difficulty learning that responses can control trauma, increase in stress levels (and ill-health). People with depression have no self-efficacy. The less self-efficacy they have, the more they retreat into helplessness.

It’s hard to remain cheerful and optimistic in these challenging times. But I’d argue that it is more important than ever that we all try and maintain or develop a semblance of self-efficacy, because our actions and decisions do matter: individual and collective behaviour to stop the contagion or fight climate change (or voting to stop Donald Trump from starting a second term).

Perhaps one of the ways to “work” on self-efficacy is to exercise it at home: baking a loaf of bread, doing the cleaning, or knitting a jumper. Thus the “retreat” into the domestic sphere can be regarded not as a retreat but as the necessary practice of self-efficacy for future political or social action. By controlling this small world, we learn that we should not give up on the world at large…

🥨 🍻 🇩🇪 I’ve visited several houses in the Munich area and have learned that in Munich, it’s harder to convince a landlord to pick you as their tenant than it is to convince an employer to give you a job. Munich has grown considerably over the past decade and has become Germany’s most expensive city for the simple reason that more people want to live there than there is available housing 🏡

To celebrate Nouveau départ’s 6 months of existence, Nicolas and I interviewed each other about our work and our projects: here’s his interview of me, and my interview of him. Other podcasts include: 👔 Qu'est-ce que "faire carrière" aujourd'hui ?, 🇬🇧 Brexit : enfin, le dénouement ?, Apprendre à vivre avec l’incertitude… If you still haven’t subscribed yet, give it a try!

For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote a new ebook that was published a few days ago! 👉🏿 Télétravail : nouveau levier d'inclusion ? 🇫🇷 📖

For Building Bridges I’ve already interviewed 6 amazing authors: Leslie Kern (podcast included in this newsletter), James Crabtree, Andrew Scott, Vaughn Tan, Bruno Maçães, and Mariana Mazzucato! Subscribe to Building Bridges if you want to receive the podcast in your mail box as soon as it’s published 🎧

Last but not least, I'm proud to have participated in "The Great Redesign"along with inspiring doers and thinkers. Have a look at NEXT Conference's web page and visit for more information 🚀


  • ♀️Women in the Workplace 2020, McKinsey & Company, September 2020: “Women are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees.”

  • 🧺 The vicious cycle of never-ending laundry, Rachel Sugar, Vox, October 2020: “We have been doing what is recognizable as modern laundry — using soap and water to make what was dirty clean — for 200 years now. We have outsourced it and insourced it and mechanized it and developed apps for it, but while we have made it easier, we have not made it less. Like so many basic functions of life maintenance — eating, showering, cleaning, sleeping — laundry has yet to be hacked out of existence. But what makes laundry special is that it has also not improved.”

  • 🕊️ It's 2023. Here's How We Fixed the Global Economy, Mariana Mazzucato, Time, October 2020: “Rising to the role of the “entrepreneurial state,” government had finally become an investor of first resort that co-created value with the public sector and civil society. Just as in the days of the Apollo program, working for government—rather than for Google or Goldman Sachs—became the ambition for top talent coming out of university. Government jobs became so desirable and competitive, in fact, that a new curriculum was formed for a global master in public administration degree for people who wanted to become civil servants.”

Until next time… don’t give up on your self-efficacy! 🍞 ❤️

The future of work, with a feminist perspective