University of Idaho
What is ―learned
• Learned helplessness – is the belief
that ―we can’t change the course of
negative events—that failure is
inevitable and insurmountable.‖
• Learned helplessness is about
responses to failure NOT success
• Learned helplessness is a control NOT
a competence problem.
• Many accomplished students shied away
from challenge and fell apart in the face of
• Many less skilled students seized challenges
with relish and were energized by setbacks.
• Many skills students questioned or
condemned their intelligence when they
• Many less skilled students never questioned
their ability or even felt they failed.
• ―Learned helplessness‖ (LH) patterns – initially the
belief that failure was beyond their control and
nothing could be done.
• Updated to include denigration of intelligence,
plunging expectations, negative emotions, low
persistence and deteriorating performance.
• ―Mastery-oriented‖ (MO) patterns – was the hardy
belief that success are replicable and mistakes
rectifiable. To them, failure is surmountable so they
remained focused on mastery in spite of their present
DIENER & DWECK
5 th& 6th graders were identified as
mastery or helpless and then solved a
series of math problems
First 8 problems could be solved, but the
next 4 problems were beyond their skills
Researchers assessed problem-solving
strategies used and thoughts and feelings
expressed while the kids worked on the
problems with a ―talk aloud‖ strategy.
Results across many
studies show that
• mastery patterns -- 40%
• helpless patterns -- 40%
• neutral patterns -- 10-15%
Both groups were equally successful
and positive on the success problems.
Over one-third of helpless students
denigrated their abilities and blamed
their intelligence for their failure.
LH students believed they had more
failure than success.
Two-thirds expressed negative affect
during failure from boredom to
Their focus went to ―saving face‖ rather
than solving the problem.
off-task thoughts (e.g., role in play)
changed rules feel successful
Performance plummeted because of use
of poor problem-solving strategies
Other research that allowed students to
go back to success problems found
serious deterioration in performance
Mastery students didn’t focus on the
reasons for failure.
They didn’t seem to believe they
MO students gave themselves
cognitive and motivational
instructions on how to improve
All used self-monitoring and self-
They remained confident and
They relished the challenge of
80% maintained or improved the
quality of their problem-solving
25% improved and taught
themselves new strategies
Failure was not a ―personal
indictment‖ but a ―challenge.‖
Licht & Dweck (1984) asked students to
read a booklet and take a mastery test.
Form A had a confusing passage
promoting failure and Form B didn’t.
Both mastery and helpless students
performed well on the ―success booklet.‖
72% of helpless and 68% of mastery
students got all 7 questions correct.
72% of mastery but only 35% of helpless
were able to master the ―failure booklet.‖
Eventually we all must confront failure
Do students choose to accept difficult
challenges or avoid them by selecting easy
tasks that guarantee success?
―Challenge seekers‖ will normally be
highly successful in anything the do,
whereas ―challenge avoiders‖ will often
not perform well when confronting failure
ROLE OF GOALS IN
Elliott & Dweck (1988) found that
helpless and mastery students have
―Performance goals‖ are about
winning positive judgments about
your competence and avoiding
Performance goal setters want to
look smart and avoid looking dumb.
ROLE OF GOALS IN
―Learning goals‖ are focused on
increasing competence. They promote
learning new skills, mastering new
tasks and understanding new
Learning goal setters want to get
The focus is on process rather than
product—learning rather than
WHICH IS MORE
In the real world, learning and
performance goals are often in
Do they choose tasks that make
them look smart or ones that help
them learn as much as possible?
Overemphasis on performance goals
can hurt learning in the quest to
look smart or talented.
Elliott & Dweck (1988) gave 5th
graders either a performance or a
Both groups got a series of successes
on the same task followed by several
Many students in the performance
goal task showed the helpless pattern.
IMPACT OF ABILITY
Most students in the learning goal
condition demonstrated mastery
Students with performance goals
who were convinced they had high
ability were more likely to
demonstrate mastery patterns.
Ability made no difference for
students with learning goals.
REAL WORLD GOALS
Farrell & Dweck (1985) gave junior high
students new science material.
After a week of learning, students were
tested on new kinds of problems.
On the novel problems, learning goal
• scored significantly higher.
• produced 50% more work
• tried to apply principles to solve the
How do we help students
or athletes who are
learned helpless to
overcome this problem?
Group 1 received only successes
Group 2 received mostly successes,
but they were taught to attribute
failure to low effort or other internal-
Results showed no improvement for
Group 2 showed no impairment
following failure and most actually
What are the limitations
of ―attribution retraining‖
ORIGINS VERSUS PAWNS
Origins – a person who feels that
he is in control of his fate. He
feels that the cause for his
behavior is within himself.
Pawns – persons who feel pushed
around. They are the puppet and
someone else is pulling the
strings. They have an external
locus of control.
ORIGIN AND PAWN
accepts challenges avoids challenges
feels potent powerless
competent & aimless
De CHARMS ST LOUIS
3 year study in 4th through 6th grades
of East St Louis elementary schools
Week-long workshop to train teachers
and have them design activities to
teach principles to their kids
Teachers implemented one activity per
week throughout the school year
Kids were pre and post tested each
De CHARMS’ RESULTS
Kids academic progress was
closer to their suburban peers
each year of the study.
Absenteeism and discipline
referrals declined steadily
Enjoyment of school and attitude
of kids and their parents rose
Permanence – Helpless people believe
the causes of bad events that happen
to them are permanent. They believe
bad events will persist and will always
affect their lives.
People who resist helplessness believe
the causes of bad events are
temporary. People who believe good
events have permanent causes are
more optimistic than people who
believe they have temporary causes.
Pervasiveness – Helpless people who make
universal explanations for their failures give
up on everything when failure strikes in one
area. People who make specific explanations
may become helpless in one part of the life
but march stalwartly on in the others.
Optimists believe that bad events have
specific causes while good events will
enhance everything they do. The pessimist
believes that bad events have universal
causes and that good events are caused by
Hope – Hope is the art of finding
temporary and specific causes for
misfortune. Temporary causes limit
helplessness in time, and specific
causes limit helplessness to the
Permanent causes produce
helplessness far into the future, and
universal causes spread helplessness
thru all of our lives and activities
Personalization – People who blame
themselves when they fail have low
self-esteem as a consequence. They
think they are worthless, talentless
People who blame external events
when they fail believe do not lose self-
esteem when bad events strike. On
the whole, they like themselves better
than people who blame themselves do.
WEST POINT STUDY
1200 plebes are admitted each year
for Beast Barracks in July
6 quit the first day and by the first day
of classes 100 of our best students
Pessimists are much more like to quit
than optimists and their grades are
worse than their ACT scores predict.
Optimists often overachieve compared
to their ACT scores.
In September students are tested for
Explanatory Style and depression
Following the midterm exam, they
were tested for depression again.
Results confirmed . . .
• 30% who experienced personal failure
• 30% of the pessimists were depressed
• 70% of pessimists who experienced
personal failure were depressed
STUDY: THE PROBLEM
Selling insurance requires dealing
with frequent rejection and failure.
Thus, many agents quit each year
dramatically increasing training
costs while reducing productivity.
The insurance industry wants to
select agents who are more
resilient and handle failure
STUDY: THE PROBLEM
Every year 60,000 candidates apply for
jobs as new insurance agents and only
5,000 are hired.
Even with extensive training, half quit
the first year.
By the end of Year 4, 80% have quit.
Because it costs $30,000 to hire and
train one agent, high turnover rates
are costing companies $75 million a
STUDY: THE PROBLEM
Agents find it difficult to
experience the rejection of
hearing people tell them ―no‖
It’s easy to get discouraged as
the ―no’s‖ mount, prompting
them to get more frustrated and
200 agents took the Explanatory
Styles Inventory and sales results
compared for both groups.
Optimists sold 37% more
insurance than pessimists.
For a sample of 104 new agents,
pessimists were twice as likely to
quit as optimists. In fact, 59 of
The Agent Selection Questionnaire
(ASQ) is the industry standard for
selecting insurance agents.
Agents with scores in the top half of
the ASQ sold 20% more insurance
than those in the bottom half.
Agents in the top quarter sold 50%
more insurance than those from the
In an interesting study testing of the
power of optimism, 100 agents were
hired who were optimists but failed the
Insurance Industry’s exam the Career
This group of special agents outsold
pessimists who passed the CP by 21% the
first year and 57% the second year.
They also sold as much as optimists who
passed the CP and had similar work