permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization

Learned Helplessness

Encyclopedia of Childhood and AdolescenceApr 06, 2001

The concept of learned helplessness was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Seligman (1942- ) at the University of Pennsylvania. He found that animals receiving electric shocks, which they had no ability to prevent or avoid, were unable to act in subsequent situations where avoidance or escape was possible. Extending the ramifications of these findings to humans, Seligman and his colleagues found that human motivation to initiate responses is also undermined by a lack of control over one’s surroundings. Further research has shown that learned helplessness disrupts normal development and learning and leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression.

Learned helplessness in humans can begin very early in life if infants see no correlation between actions and their outcome. Institutionalized infants, as well as those suffering from maternal deprivation or inadequate mothering, are especially at risk for learned helplessness due to the lack of adult responses to their actions. It is also possible for mothers who feel helpless to pass this quality on to their children. Learned helplessness in children, as in adults, can lead to anxiety or depression, and it can be especially damaging very early in life, for the sense of mastery over one’s environment is an important foundation for future emotional development. Learned helplessness can also hamper education: a child who fails repeatedly in school will eventually stop trying, convinced that there is nothing he or she can do to succeed.

In the course of studying learned helplessness in humans, Seligman found that it tends to be associated with certain ways of thinking about events that form what he termed a person’s "explanatory style."  The three major components of explanatory style associated with learned helplessness are permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization

Permanence refers to the belief that negative events and/or their causes are permanent, even when evidence, logic, and past experience indicate that they are probably temporary ("Amy hates me and will never be my friend again" vs. "Amy is angry with me today"; "I’ll never be good at math"). 

Pervasiveness refers to the tendency to generalize so that negative features of one situation are thought to extend to others as well ("I’m stupid" vs. "I failed a math test" or "nobody likes me" vs. "Janet didn’t invite me to her party"). 

Personalization, the third component of explanatory style, refers to whether one tends to attribute negative events to one’s own flaws or to outside circumstances or other people. While it is important to take responsibility for one’s mistakes, persons suffering from learned helplessness tend to blame themselves for everything, a tendency associated with low self esteem and depression. The other elements of explanatory style–permanence and pervasiveness–can be used as gauges to assess whether the degree of self-blame over a particular event or situation is realistic and appropriate.


One Response to “permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization”

  1. 1 Says:

    Quote from the Note“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.”~ Martin Seligman from Learned OptimismThe Big Idea — The Three P’s“There are three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization” ~ Martin Seligman from Learned OptimismPermanence: Is it likely to continue? Is it permanent or temporary?The permanence is pretty straightforward. Something happens. Do you explain the results as permanent, and likely to recur? Or, do you think it was temporary—just a fluke.If it’s a bad thing, the optimist tends to think it’s a fluke. If it’s a good thing, they tend to think it’s permanent.The opposite holds true for the pessimist: Good things are the flukes and bad things are more likely to recur.Pervasiveness: Is it reflective of your whole life? Is it “universal” or is it “specific”?The pervasiveness looks at whether we believe an event is specific or universal. So, do we think the results of this one event apply to everything in our lives, or just that episode?With a good event, the optimist is more likely to extend it to her whole life. With a bad event, she will tend to isolate the incident as specific to that situation.The opposite holds true for the pessimist. If something good happens, they think it was a fluke. If something bad happens, they think it is representative of their whole life.Personalization: Internal or external?The personalization looks at whether we believe that we are responsible for the event, or if something outside of our control was responsible. The fancy psychological term for it is “locus of control”: whether you believe the control was “internal” or “external.”Something good happens. An optimist pats himself on the back (internal)—saying he did a good job. Same thing happens to a pessimist. He is more likely to attribute the success to luck, other people’s hard work, or something else outside of his control (external).D’oh. Something bad happens. The optimist looks to things outside of himself (external) to explain the event—from bad luck to an off day. The pessimist, although they didn’t take responsibility for the good event, are eager to take responsibility for the bad event (internal).“People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.” ~ Martin Seligman from Learned OptimismA note on realism: Seligman addresses the fact that optimism is not always a good thing. In fact, many situations call for a strong level of pessimism and realism. For example, imagine a pilot experiencing trouble with his aircraft. The situation demands brutal realism. Same holds true for a business experiencing troubles. Although you want your leader to have hope and optimism for a bright future, you also need a healthy dose of realism to ensure success.More Seligman wisdom:“On a mechanical level, cognitive therapy works because it changes explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic, and the change is permanent. It gives you a set of cognitive skills for talking to yourself when you fail.”“Practice disputing your automatic interpretations all the time from now on.”

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