The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

Tuesday Psych Post – Learned Helplessness and Exercise

There are countless psychological theories as to why people don’t exercise.  You have Self-Determination Theory, Trans-Theoretical Model of Change, Cognitive Dissonance, Learning Theory, Decision-Making Theory, Behavioral Choice, Social Cognitive Theory amongst others.

There is one theory above all else that I see working it’s way into people’s lives every single day.  This theory accounts for emotional distress, negative neurochemical changes, loss of motivation and overall passivity.

This theory is also one which I’ve had the most first-hand negative experience with.  With a childhood that was characterized by loving an alcoholic, along with a mother that had the same feelings, you have some questions to ask in the aftermath of that person’s destruction.

The most potent question is typically, “How could we allow this to go on for so long?”

This theory characterizes that passivity, that allowed for inaction for so many years.

This is the same passivity that I see with people who don’t work out.  It’s that loss of hope, that passivity, the giving up on the ability to change.

It’s aptly named Learned Helplessness and was first introduced by Martin Seligman while trying to explain a series of unexpected results following experiments on dogs in the 1960’s.

The original experiments were conducted on dogs who were strapped in a harness and given shocks.  The harness prevented the dogs from being able to move away from the shocks.  After a number of these pairings (shocks and not being able to escape them), these dogs eventually gave up trying. Another group of dogs were allowed to jump onto a different side where there were no shocks and therefore had the ability to stop being shocked.

In the second-part of this experiment, the researchers allowed both groups of dogs to be free to stop feeling the pain of the shocks by jumping over to the other side.  Despite having the power to stop the pain from the shocks, the dogs that were originally in the harness, rarely jumped over to the other side.  They had “Learned” that they were “Helpless” to do anything that would change the outcome of the shocks.  What’s most surprising is that if they did jump over to the other side, just by chance, they would fail to do so in the proceeding trials.  In other words, they would continue to get shocked even after they had physically taken an action that led to a different outcome (ie., avoid the shocks).  They had failed to learn that they had control over the outcome by taking a different action.

At this point, you may be asking, “What the hell’s your point?  Those experiments were on dogs.  I’m not a dog!”

That’s what a lot of people thought.

So to show that the same phenomenon occurred in people, the experimenters conducted human trials (no they didn’t strap humans down in a harness and shock them).  What the experimenters did can be seen in this video:

The researchers “induced” helplessness. Just as the dogs were induced into uncontrollable situations, the experimenters gave the participants unsolvable questions, followed by a solvable question.  By priming the participant with questions that had no answers, the participants gave up more quickly and felt less competent – most of the time.

You see not everyone in the experiments reacted the same way by being set up for failure at the beginning.  The question is what separated those that were effected negatively by the experiment and those that weren’t effect?

In 1978, Martin Seligman, Lyn Abrahamson and John Teasdale reformulated the learned helplessness model for people, by including how people explained the uncontrollable events in different ways.

As is every young child’s favorite question, the question, “Why?” helps to explain why different people respond differently to failures and uncontrollable events. 

The different interpretations of how we explain that “Why,” is what separates one person who takes action, while not losing hope, versus someone who stops taking action and feels helpless.

After reading that last sentence, you might be like, “No shit, Sherlock.”

The bottom line is that there are three main ways that we answer that “Why?”  These three ways signify whether we take the appropriate actions or wallow in defeat.

This added addition of the Learned Helplessness theory is called attribution theory and helps to explain the difference between those that fail and yet continue making progress towards their goals versus those that fail and stop trying.

The first “attribution” is whether or not you see the source of the failure as something that was caused by an internal or external source.  For example, say you were going to go to the gym and didn’t go because you were tired.  The internal source explanation would be if you said something as, “I’m lazy.”  Obviously saying this repeatedly, and blaming yourself from an internal source, will not bring about the changes you are seeking.  On the other hand, if you said something like, “I didn’t get good sleep because there was a lot of noise,” then you’re explaing the reason from an external source and in theory, would be at a better position to continue to try and make the changes you seek.

The second factor is whether or not you felt that the cause was stable or unstable.  For example, suppose you had attempted to lose weight and didn’t succeed.  In a stable instance, you would say something like, “I’m fat and always will be.”  This explanation is something that you see as fixed over time, and hence stable.  This explanation also leads you to not taking the behaviors you would need in order to see changes you want.  An unstable instance would be if you said, “I tried and didn’t succeed because I didn’t manage your my correctly the first time.”  This gives you power to control the situation and makes it easier for you to make the changes that you are seeking.

The third aspect of this attributional theory is whether or not you view the situation as global or specific.  For example, say you started another fitness and diet routine, but on just the second day of this “new routine” you eat something that isn’t on the diet.  Does you explain this by saying, “I am not meant for this,” a global perspective that leads to a decrease in your perceived self-esteem?  Or does you explain it by saying, “I choose to have one doughnut because that one doughnut was irresistible.”   By taking on that specific meaning of the lapse of your new “routine” you are much more likely to get back on track.

Now, I’m not saying to not take responsibility for your actions, but realize that too often we are derailed by unrealistic expectations that we have.  You’re human and although to be human is great, it also means that we will err.  No one was born perfect and no one is void of mistakes.  As such, know that despite having made a mistake and even “failing” does not mean that you are powerless over future situations.  You do have the power to try a different method, a method that works for you.  You do have the power to find a routine that is specific for you, that you can embrace.  You do have the power to manage your expectations and slowly build fitness into your life, instead of trying in vain to add it into your life all at once.

Realize that you do have the power to change, but if you don’t change as completely or quickly as you’d like there is always something more you can do.  Recognize that your “mistakes” are rarely character flaws and more often “the ability to hope and believe in yourself “flaws.

Change that perspective and you are much more apt to take the actions you need to take to see the results you desire.

Take control over these three questions and start to be more realistic with yourself:
1 – Do you see the situation as a global indicator of who you are or as a specific situation that didn’t happen to work out? Most of the time, it’s a specific situation – even if it’s happened time and time again.  Bad methods typically lead to repeated failure – not the individual. It’s like trying to pick up a girl by whistling at her – it just doesn’t work.  It doesn’t mean that you’re not a good person, worthy of love, you just might be using methods that rarely work.

2 – Do you believe that this is something that will happen all the time or a one time, specific incident? More often than not, we apply the failure too broadly, when in reality, it was a failure for a specific reason and incident.

3 – Do you take the failure internally, blaming yourself for the failure, or do you see it as something that was caused by a more universal reason?  If you failed to get a job, was it because you “weren’t good enough” or was it because it’s a competitive market and there might have been a better qualified candidate?

In the book, Influence, the authors propose an idea that the reason that most people do not change is because of the failure of 1 of 2 questions.  The questions are: 1 – Can I do the change? And, 2 – Is the effort for the change worth it?

Learned Helplessness can negatively effect both the belief that you can accomplish the change you seek, along with negatively effecting the belief that the change is worth it.

If you’ve read this post, along with the two posts about beliefs (How to Change Them and What are Your Beliefs), then hopefully you have a couple tools for combating that Learned Helplessness.

In other words, if you’re more passive than you should be, have lost enough hope to feel stuck in a rut and want to make a change, there’s no better time to start – Now that you’ve got some knowledge, take some action.

If you have any questions, leave a comment or email me at

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