Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which an animal has learned to believe that it is helpless. It has come to believe that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result, the animal will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful or damaging situation, even when it does actually have the power to change its circumstances. Learned helplessness theory is the view that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in one's life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.
Learned helplessness is a well-established principle in psychology. It can be observed in the effect of inescapable punishment (such as electrical shock) on animal (and by extension, human) behaviour. Learned helplessness may also occur outside the laboratory, in everyday situations or environments in which people perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they have no control over what happens to them. Such environments may include repeated failures, prison, school, war, disability, famine, and drought. A similar example is that of those concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust who refused to care or fend for themselves (so-called Muselmänner). Present-day examples can be found in schools, mental institutions, orphanages, or long-term care facilities where the patients have failed or been stripped of agency for long enough to cause their feelings of inadequacy to persist.
Not all people become depressed as a result of being in a situation where they appear not to have control. In what learned-helplessness pioneer M.E.P. Seligman called "explanatory style," people in a state of learned helplessness view problems as personal, pervasive, or permanent. That is,
* Personal - They may see themselves as the problem; that is, they have internalized the problem.
* Pervasive - They may see the problem as affecting all aspects of life.
* Permanent - They may see the problem as unchangeable.
The concept of "explanatory style" is related to the fundamental attribution error.