We are not determined by circumstances

According to the theory of learned helplessness, if we learn through an experience or other means that outcomes are independent of our response–that nothing we do matters–then we will generalize that lesson to other situations in our life. We will feel helpless even if we are not.

This theory, the result of an experiment at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, became the cornerstone of psychology. Repeated experiments confirmed the results again and again. Until it was proved wrong, that is.

Steven F. Meyer, one of the researchers at the original University of Pennsylvania switched fields and became a neuroscientist. Revisiting helplessness from a neurological perspective, and thanks to the advances in diagnosis equipment, he discovered that the learned helplessness theory had it all backward.

Meyer discovered that we don’t learn helplessness. It’s the default state. Our brain assumes helplessness when exposed to adverse conditions. To overcome it, we have to learn that we have the power to be in control of our own outcomes. We have to realize that we have agency over circumstances in our lives.

We may think that we are not affected by this “default” helplessness. But many times we passively accept what happens to us, or around us. We feel intimidated. We don’t commit to the change we know we need to make. We make excuses.

As Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “Man is not the creature of circumstances; circumstances are the creatures of men.” It’s our decisions, and not our circumstances, that determine our future.

learned helplessness commitment agency change

Join my free newsletter and receive updates directly to your inbox.