Learned Helplessness

If you keep a predatory fish, such as a pike, in an aquarium it will display normal healthy predator behaviours.  Put a prey fish in and a hungry pike will attack and swallow it in the blink of an eye.

If you use a glass wall to divide the aquarium in half, with the pike on one side and a prey fish on the other, then the pike will pursue the prey fish again.  But this time it just smacks into the glass and gets a painful bang on the head for its trouble.  No matter!  It regroups, attacks again and ‘crack’ the same result – a whole load of pain and no gain.

After a while the pike learns that going for the prey fish is not such a smart move.  Chasing what you want just ends in failure and pain.  You can even remove the glass wall from the tank, surround the starving pike with prey fish and it still will not attack.  It has learned helplessness.

There is a lot of learned helplessness out there.  A lot of people who used to have dreams and aspirations, but in pursuing them have just got pain and no gain.  Painful experiences and memories from school, parents and peers who do not believe in them and perhaps a history of redundancy and unemployment.  You can dangle ‘opportunities’ in front of them and still they will not grab them.  They have learned that this will only end in pain – and no gain.  Learned helplessness.

And ‘advice’ even well meaning, technically competent and powerful advice will not help.  In fact it will hinder – it will reinforce the idea that they are somehow deficient.  That if they were OK they would not be in this situation.  It reinforces the helplessness.

So what does work?  Knowing someone who believes in you – unconditionally.  Who encourages you to pick yourself up, learn the lesson and move on.  Someone who has faith in you and wants to see you become the wonderful person that you have the potential to become.  Someone who does not preach or advise but just helps you to grow – and to keep growing.  Someone who puts your well-being at the top of the agenda – and their contracted outputs much lower down.  A facilitator, a coach, a true friend who will help tackle the real barriers to progress – not just the technical challenges to be overcome but the personal ones too.


  1. […] The person that won’t get on the bus is in the true sense of the word hopeless in this area of their lives.  What IS the point of another trip to the job centre or the college that will just end up in yet another failure?  It is hard to believe that the institutions that are there to help can be of any help at all.  It is an example of what the psychologists call Learned Helplessness. […]

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