Tag Archives: learned helplessness

Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Application in Training & Content Development (3 of 3)

Following are the two posts that precede this post.

  1. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Why People play down the Achievements of Others?
  2. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Stability & Controllability

This is the third and final post in this series. Through this post, let us discuss some applications of the Attribution Theory.

Recall how Sloth and Froth applied different causes to their own and other’s successes and failures. What we saw was something that we’ve all experienced intuitively – the primal human tendency to improve ones appearance. An interesting application of Attribution theory, which popped into my head just now, can be seen in the behavior of a young woman viewing a picture of another woman (someone that her spouse or sweetheart may have found attractive.) The reasons that this woman would attribute to the “success” (read: attractiveness) of the woman in picture would probably read as:

“A play of lights. Those photographers can make anyone look beautiful! And I wonder why you don’t see those spots on her face that I saw when the camera did a close-up in…what was that show – Oh…Koffee with Karan, I suppose. And that figure?! Hasn’t anyone heard of Photoshop! She’s got curves?! Hah!”

And upon viewing her own photograph…
“The photographer didn’t know his work! Look at the way he messed up the lighting! I don’t have those three rumbling chins – no way! And my skin is actually many shades lighter. What’s that spot on my cheek? Must be a speck on the camera lens!”

Funny…but true! And we all know that it is true:-)

What’s Lacey’s Viewpoint?

The question is how can we use this reality to make learning more effective?

Here are a few tips.

1. Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!
2. Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution
3. Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes
4. Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!

Remember that the audience attempts to view his/her success or failure in the best possible light. This of course means that for everything that happens during a learning experience, the audience’s mind is busy determining causes. By the time, you get around to explaining something, the audience has already booked a cause for it. So, Never tell the audience that his or her failure was due to an internal factor. (In all probability, the audience has already pinned the blame of failure on to something else, such as you, or the study material, the methodology, or even a visiting aunt.) If you differ, your explanation will be met with a cognitive dissonance.

Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution

Always review a learning issue within the context of the culture. For instance, as Indians, we make external attributions for a person’s undesirable actions more often than the westerners. This is so because as a society we are driven by external obligations, humility, and the demands of our social/familial roles.

Thus, if a person is caught taking bribe, a westerner would probably be more disposed towards attributing the action to that person’s trait of dishonesty, while we would most probably blame it on the system.

Here’s another example.
My personal experience of dealing with the topic of plagiarism in a training program taught me that this topic has to be handled very carefully, else it would hit a wall of resistance. Discussing plagiarism as a malady to be remedied results in more productive discussions that discussing it as an act of dishonesty (which results in drawn swords.)

Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes

This is an old one, and I am sure that you are already a master at doing this. Ascribe failures to unstable and controllable caused (for example, if a learner fails to perform according to expectations, ascribe it to “lack of directed effort” (something that can be controlled, and which isn’t stable – are you wondering whether all that is internal and unstable can be controlled? Reflect.) Don’t ascribe it to “lack of aptitude for science.”)

If you think that a learner has developed the tendency to ascribe failures to external, stable, uncontrollable factors, gear up to steer this learner away from this defeatist attitude.

Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

In societies such as ours, we grow up ascribing our successes to the hand of fate. When I was growing up, before and after my exams (until the results were declared,) I’d pray and hope that somehow my prayers would improve my results. Thankfully, my prayers were never answered and I learned to ascribe success to “internal and controllable” causes. I shudder to think what kind of person I would’ve become had I turned “lucky.”

We should attempt to help the learner view his/her successes as a result of her internal, stable, and controllable factors (such as the output of concentrated effort,) instead of external, unstable, and uncontrollable factors, such as luck.

I believe that such positive attributions can go a long way in bolstering the confidence of our children who would find themselves in control of their destiny instead of being controlled by it.

Photo by mikebaird

Of course, Attribution Theory has many other applications, and I don’t think that I can cover all of them, but I do feel that a conscious effort to keep the three parameters of Attribution Theory in mind could help all kinds of learning professionals – the trainers, the teachers, and the instructional designers. It could help us reach out to our audience, empathize with them, and become a positive influence in their lives.


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Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Stability & Controllability (2 of 3)

The previous post introduced us to the Attribution Theory and Self-Serving Bias. It also illustrated the first of the three attribution factors, the locus of control. In this post, we will discuss the two remaining factors – stability and controllability.

Let’s revert to the self-propping reflections of Sloth and Froth.

Sloth: Froth got promoted because her boss (a male in this case,) is completely smitten by her. I wasn’t promoted because my earlier boss, who was reasonable and sweet, got transferred; and now I’ve got to work under this insufferable hag! Her boss and my boss – they are here to stay! I can’t change a thing! She’ll continue to be promoted; I’ll continue to slog!

Froth: I got promoted because I am smart and intelligent. It’s my hard work on that project that led to this promotion. Sloth? He didn’t get promoted because he’s a sloth-ball. He’s an incorrigible procrastinator! I got promoted because I put in that effort – Sloth missed it because he doesn’t want to work hard!

So, Sloth attributes his failure and Froth’s success to “external”, “stable”, and “uncontrollable” causes. Froth on the other hand attributes Sloth’s failure and her success to “internal”, “unstable”, and “controllable” causes.

Thus, both Sloth and Froth are trying to cast the other person in the worst possible light. (Sloth says, she succeeded because everything was conducive for her, Froth says, Sloth failed because he didn’t work hard, which he could’ve…and so it’s too bad!)

The point to note here is that each one of us attributes causes in a similar way…though the degree might vary. Knowing this can help the trainers and the content writers in anticipating their learner’s responses. If you’ve been a moderator of a discussion, you’d know how you could raise a firewall between yourself and the participant by saying those two fatally poisonous words, “You are wrong!” Remember, that the audience thinks that he or she is much better than the average person on accomplishing everything (except whatever the audience has learned to feel helpless about – read, the Learned Helplessness posts.)

Let us sum it up.

Attribution theory says that humans attempt to attribute the reasons behind an event in a manner that they are able to cast themselves in the best light. They do this by evaluating the event on three factors, which are:

  • Locus (Whether internal or external)
  • Stability (Whether stable or unstable)
  • Controllability (Whether controllable or uncontrollable)

These three factors are “perceived” to establish a self-serving bias.

Important Note: There’s also a cultural dimension to self-serving bias. Despite the rapid westernization, the Eastern Cultures (India included) inhibit self-serving bias.

In the third and final post on this topic, we will discuss the Training and Content Creation implications of the Attribution theory, and of self-serving bias.

(Read the first post in this series here.)


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Establishing a Process of Change – Overcoming Learned Helplessness

In the “Learned Helplessness Banishment” trilogy…
Read the first post (to understand the Concept of Learned Helplessness), the second post (to identify and ascertain the existence of Learned Helplessness), and this of course, is the third and final post (to establish a process of change and overcome Learned Helplessness).

In the previous post we learned to recognize the issue of learned helplessness. Have you identified a symptom in your behavior? If you haven’t found even one instance of learned helplessness, I suggest you look again. All of us have our apprehensions, our doubts, our beliefs about our inabilities – and they derive their sustenance from LH (Ah – I finally broke the chains and used an abbreviation.)

So let’s be good and review our own actions and corresponding justifications more objectively. Stop for a moment; pick up a pencil and a paper (or whatever else you use for jotting down your thoughts in the e-savvy environment of today.) Don’t tell me, and don’t tell anyone else – but be honest and put down the one thing that you’d really like to change.

Before you move on, remind yourself that life is a thousand times more beautiful when you are in-charge:-)

Photo by YimHafiz
  • Apply the litmus test – Confirm the Need to Bring About a Change
  • Identify/Establish a Motivator and a Process for the Change
  • Review & Fix the Motivator & the Process
  • Repeat the Process
  • Measure Results

Apply the litmus test.

Do you suffer from a physical, objective inability to achieve your specific objective?
Yes>>>Stop. Get help/resolve the real issues impeding your progress towards your objective.
No>>>Good. The issue can be resolved then – merely by controlling your runaway thoughts. Now answer the second question.

Do you attribute the issue to external factors?
Yes>>>Read ahead, apply, and get a life.
No>>>You have a genuine issue. Talk it out with someone – get help from friends – or learn to accept the reality. (I have been suffering from a back problem for about five years now; the pain and the resulting unease aren’t the product of an external factor. So I’ve learned to accept the reality of pain, and I live accordingly.)

(Note for the Instructional Designer Audience: In Instructional Design parlance, you’ve just confirmed the need to learn (to unlearn an attitude that’s bordering on a belief.)

Identify/Establish a Motivator and a Process:

Let us now begin the process of uprooting the unhealthy belief that “you can’t” do something.
The first step that you need to take is – do a physical activity that will help weaken the LH.

Here are a couple of illustrations courtesy Sloth and Froth:
Sloth: “I can’t talk to strangers.” >> Create a situation where you need to speak to strangers. (ride a bus to an unknown place in the city and get lost.)

Froth: “I can’t lose weight.” >> Create a tangible motivation for losing weight. (Spend half your salary on buying a pretty dress (or a handsome suit) that’s one size too small. )

It is quite possible that you are an internally motivated individual and you might not need the external motivation generated by these actions – Nevertheless most of us (even the internally motivated ones) are happier when we can “see” a tangible, achievable, motivational factor.

Now decide upon the process.

Sloth: I’ll get lost in the city and speak to at least five strangers, at least once a week.
Froth: I’ll not eat chocolates on weekdays, and I’ll jog a kilometer at least four days a week.

Review & Fix the Motivator & the Process:

The next step is to analyze what worked and what didn’t. Let us continue to follow Sloth and Froth.

Sloth: “I tried getting lost in the city, but the fear of having to talk with strangers made me get down the bus.” (Corrective Action: Sloth can tell his friends and relatives, that they should “dump” him in unknown locations, without prior warning.)

Froth: “I bought the dress…I spent a whole month’s salary on it! But I still weigh 65 kgs and I can’t keep off ice-creams and chocolates!” (Correction: Froth, I advised spending half-month’s worth of salary on it and not full-month’s…any way, here’s the corrective action you may want to take. Froth can keep the dress in a place where she sees it every day. She can also try it on (I know what it feels like to put on a dress a size too small – You feel like you are reborn when you peel it off.)

So the process changes to accommodate your problems:
Sloth: I’ll ask my friends to help me get lost in the city and speak to at least five strangers, at least once a week.
Froth: I’ll wear the new dress for an hour every weekend. I’ll not eat chocolates on weekdays, and I’ll jog a kilometer at least four days a week.

Repeat the Process:

After you’ve cleaned up your process, and got your motivational factors in place; now apply the process repeatedly, and after each repetition revel in your success, however minute it may be. Remember that every learning (or unlearning – as in this case,) experience has three fundamental phases: knowledge transfer, reinforcement, and assessment. The first phase is akin the identification of the issue, determination of the motivator, and establishment of the process (of learning/unlearning). The second phase is about practicing the learning/unlearning, and the final phase is about figuring out whether the learning/unlearning was successful.

So now you need to practice through repetition of the process. To get rid of your LH you need to go through your specific process again and again – and with each repetition, you’ll feel more confident of having kicked the demon out of your system.

I still remember the day, when in my final year of graduation, I faced my demons (read: LH) of not being able to speak formally, and I spoke (about something that I’ve now completely forgotten,) in front of the entire class. A year from that day, I had got over my fears. I addressed about 200 executives and senior executives of the organization I worked for, without getting the jitters – though what I said was undiplomatic…yet, my confidence came from the knowledge that there was no external/internal reason that should inhibit my ability to speak my mind – in front of everyone!

Measure Results:

When you begin to feel confident of having exorcised your demons, put yourself to test. If you have a close confidante, design the test with him or her by your side. Let’s see what Sloth and Froth would do at this stage.

Sloth: I’ll visit all those heads of marketing; all those I’ve been avoiding like plaque, and make them a presentation to wow them.
Froth: I’ll wear the new dress to the party that my colleague is throwing.

Assessments not only confirm whether you’ve achieved what you had set out to achieve, they also help you determine the lacunae in your approach – and if they succeed, they instill you with the confidence required to bring about other positive changes in your life.

So we’ve reached the end of this trilogy of posts. I know that the only bright points in this lengthy monolog must be Sloth and Froth…but I hope you found them useful. Try working out a process of change for your own brand of LH – and see it work:-)

In the “Learned Helplessness Banishment” trilogy…
Read the first post (to understand the Concept of Learned Helplessness), the second post (to identify and ascertain the existence of Learned Helplessness), and this of course, is the third and final post (to establish a process of change and overcome Learned Helplessness).


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Learned Helplessness – Identifying and Understanding it to Eliminate Depression!

In the “Learned Helplessness Banishment” trilogy…
Read the first post (to understand the Concept of Learned Helplessness), and the third and final post (to establish a process of change and overcome Learned Helplessness). This is the second post in the series.

Understanding an attitude isn’t easy and identifying it in someone else could be simpler than identifying it in yourself. If you look at “learned helplessness,” this attitude borders on belief. You begin to “believe” that you are helpless due to external factors, and that you can’t do anything about it. “What is, is and so it will remain,” becomes your mantra – your justification for feeling helpless. This feeling then leads to depression.

Photo by P0psicle

Depression is characterized by a mental state where you feel worthless and trapped. Obviously this mental state can only reinforce your feeling of helplessness. Thus, the situation becomes really difficult. What feeds upon itself to grow, can grow endlessly.

The first step towards vanquishing the demon of depression along with its mistress, the learned helplessness; is to “understand” (very cognitively and not at all emotionally) that the feeling of helplessness is an illusion. It isn’t real, as it is not supported by a physical inability to achieve what you want. This excellent post by Lex manifests this stage of learning to recognize and understand learned helplessness.

Lex did a self-analysis and realized that the “I can’t” attitude towards improving her health could be weeded out, because there was no real (root) cause supporting it. I realize that this step may be easy for some individuals (because their locus of control is more internal – they feel that they can control the outcomes of a situation) than some others (who have an external locus of control and who feel that external factors are more potent and they have a strong bearing on the outcome of a situation.)

As you read through this post, your mind will shift gears and go into high-drive. For example, you will probably say “learned helplessness? Big deal. I already know about it – but what I feel is much deeper.” Ask yourself whether your defense isn’t a result of the phenomenon itself.

Here’s an example:
“I don’t think I can drive, I am clumsy.” However, a closer look reveals that I can’t be qualified as clumsy. I don’t break things often and only rarely smash my little toe against the open door. And nobody I know has that clean a record that I expect of myself before I begin to learn how to drive.”

Now I tell myself (and others, who might be interested,) “I know I am clumsy and don’t tell me that I am not. There are other examples of my clumsiness too. I can’t risk my life and the life of others – just so that I may drive. I am clumsy – I am one in a million (because million minus one can drive,)”...and so on and so forth.

The good news is – driving is no big deal. So I can revel in not driving without experiencing drastic consequences. But then there are certain big deals too.

Let me illustrate:

  • I can’t do Math (Science, English, Geography…you name it.)>>>Result: Poor Grades
  • I can’t cook (And I can’t understand how the best chefs in this world are men?)>>>Result: Poor Health
  • I can’t exercise (I don’t have the time.) >>>Result: Poor Health
  • I can’t find a job (People don’t want my skills.) >>>Result: Low Income
  • I can’t write (I speak well – and my job needed spoken language proficiency) >>>Result: Reduction in possible career opportunities
  • I can’t make friends (Nobody likes me.) >>>Result: Loneliness
  • I can’t do anything (Everyone hates me, I don’t have a job, I can’t quit smoking)>>>Result: A lack of interest in life and thoughts of suicide.

Review the results. They all lead to depression, and they all have their origins in “learned helplessness” or unsupported “I can’ts”

All these are big deals! They impact us, and they impact our loved ones. I recommend that you first identify the symptoms (you can see them in the “Results” of the above list – such as Poor Grades, Low Income, Loneliness and so on.) Then figure out why you aren’t taking steps to remove those symptoms. If you find yourself giving “external factors” as excuses, you are suffering from Learned Helplessness in that arena.

If you have identified the problem, you are now ready to oust it from your life. In the next post, I put forth my thoughts on how we can “unlearn” learned helplessness, and lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

Additional References:
Belief” for understanding the concept of Belief.

In the “Learned Helplessness Banishment” trilogy…
Read the first post (to understand the Concept of Learned Helplessness), and the third and final post (to establish a process of change and overcome Learned Helplessness). This is the second post in the series.


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Learned Helplessness – Learning About it!

In the “Learned Helplessness Banishment” trilogy… this is the first post.
Read the second post (to identify and ascertain the existence of Learned Helplessness), and the third and final post (to establish a process of change and overcome Learned Helplessness).

Learned Helplessness, they say, is the driving force behind depression. Depression feeds over our tendency to “learn” being helpless.

Let us begin by understanding learned helplessness. Simply put, it’s our tendency towards feeling helpless when there’s no real reason for feeling so. Here’s a real-life case (with names changed,) where a man’s learned helplessness shoved him into depression, and his depression dragged his family along.

Tim married a young woman after a long courtship. When they got married, Tim and his wife, both were employed. Unfortunately, within a year of their marriage, recession struck and Tim lost his job. He tried finding another, but because his skills were very specialized and also because only a few companies were hiring at the time, he failed in his quest. About after three attempts, he developed a negative self-image, and he began telling himself that he wasn’t any good at finding jobs. This feeling kept him from applying for jobs, and even when the market conditions improved, he continued to feel the same way. He had learned to feel helpless. So while his wife continued to earn for the family, he stayed home, wallowing in self-pity, feeding the monster of depression.

Learned Helplessness manifests itself in many forms. I think that some of it may be culturally defined. For example, a woman may grow up believing that changing the tire of a car is a man’s job. Though she possesses the physical capability required to use the jack and change the tire, she would assume that she can’t do it – because she’s learned that “a woman can’t do it.”

Another example is that of men not being able to cook. Some cultures characterize cooking as a job that’s meant for women, and men learn to feel helpless about it. Then, despite the need to cook (staying alone and needing good wholesome food) they feel helpless and don’t cook.

Learned Helplessness is an attitude that requires repeated reinforcement. A not-so-nice-to-read-about experiment conducted by Seligman and Maier, points out that humans and animals can be conditioned to feel helpless through repeated exposure to situations where their actions don’t yield results. It’s true that all of us would not succumb to such conditioning with equal ease (nor in similar situations,) but we do “give up,” and learn to feel helpless.

From the viewpoint of a learner, this phenomenon can make one feel “helpless” in learning a specific kind of content, or in learning under a specific situation. What we need to figure out is:

In the upcoming posts, we will discuss a short and workable process that could help us identify this demon and oust it from our lives. In the meantime, do go through this link about the life of Dr. John F. Nash. If you haven’t watched “A Beautiful Mind” you’ve missed something beautiful. It tells us the story of Dr. John Nash, who is paranoid schizophrenic, and who through his own reasoning, rejects the voices that he hears. Though the movie shows him experiencing visual delusions, he denies having them in real life – but the controversy of visual vs. aural delusions doesn’t belittle the power of his mind, which enabled him to gain control over his life.

If Dr. Nash could see through his paranoid schizophrenia, why can’t we see through our learned helplessness and uproot it ourselves?

In the “Learned Helplessness Banishment” trilogy… this is the first post.
Read the second post (to identify and ascertain the existence of Learned Helplessness), and the third and final post (to establish a process of change and overcome Learned Helplessness).


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