Learned Helplessness

The moment you don’t feel like you have options anymore for choices you want to make, from every angle there is a pressure that gives you a cornered-up feeling. The only response you can give is stare in front of you. You probably agree with me that humans are complicated “animals”. There are many different personalities and characters on this planet.Some overthink very quickly, others have anxiety disorders, some of us are very insecure or very confident, there are many different types of personalities on this planet. Over the time of my travels and work I met many different kinds of people. I started to get to know myself better because of it, what do I like, what annoys me, what satisfies me, what do I want to get rid of in my life etc etc. There are moments where I thought giving up because nothing came back to me the way I saw it, nothing had a good outcome and I thought the only solution was just stop. I got a taste of learned helplessness.

While being in Sweden I have to overcome some personal thoughts. Being alone is a practice and I think I’m doing pretty well on this. This obviously doesn’t mean I don’t need social interaction. We are social “animals” that said it’s important to have our social interactions and our alone time. There is this fair balance between both areas. Sweden is a country where people are not that social, they need to know you what can take a long time. They won’t really invite you to anything unless it comes from yourself. Of course, there is always that one person who is more social then others but overall, I find swedes not very social people. This makes it very hard for a social foreigner like myself to adapt in this culture. What worked in The Netherlands, Canada or Spain doesn’t work here what so ever. Sometimes it comes to a point where I’m just like… Really? But I learned on the way to make difficult decisions and learned helplessness is less of a problem for me nowadays. I find solutions quicker that gives me positive outcomes instead of being stuck.

Learned helplessness: A condition created by exposure to inescapable aversive events which can retard or prevent learning in subsequent situations in which escape or avoidance is possible.

Would animals work in a similar way? My opinion is a clear yes! When animals know the outcome will be bad in any direction the animals show us learned helplessness. I worked with many different animals in my career and I’ve seen what learned helplessness looks like on the way. One of the trainers I worked with was working on a behavior where the animals had to do a straight jump and shaking his head at the same time. One trainer would send the animal from one side of the pool to the trainer who worked the target and gave the consequences. He would give the extra signal to get him to do the behavior properly. Step by step he tried to get further in his approximations. What sounds like a good plan but the animal thought differently. The steps might have been too big and there for the animal was more incorrect on this behavior than correct. After 2 or 3 incorrect responses the animal decided not to come back to the trainer with the target anymore. Most likely because the animal just didn’t know how to be correct and his trials got him into incorrect responses all the time. The reaction of the animal was to swim away to cope with the situation. When he finally got back he was given a Time Out, the reason? the animal was supposed to come back right away and it didn’t and on top of that the trainer would blame the animal for the incorrect responses there for a Time Out was given. From the animal’s point of view, it might have looked like this, first trial incorrect (what means no reinforcement is present), seconds trial incorrect (same here), now the animal doesn’t come back anymore after the 3rd time giving the same signal. After a minute or so the animal comes back and receives a Time Out for the incorrect response after the given signal. For the animal it doesn’t know what to do anymore it shows the trainer learned helplessness by swimming away and not receiving a response on its incorrect behavior this way the animal can cope with the situation.

To be honest it happens more often than we think. Getting the animal successful is important because what we want is the opposite of learned helplessness.


Moments where learned helplessness can occur:

  • Catching an animal
  • Training an animal with bad consequences
  • Forcing an animal
  • Holding an animal
  • etc.

Another example is when animals are being chased or caught by keepers for medical treatment. There will be 3 keepers in the exhibit to chase the animal in the corner. What happens is that the animal will try to get away from the keepers in the exhibit by running all over the place. After a while of dodging people in a stressfull situation the animal becomes tired and is overly stressed and decide to lie down in a corner. This is the moment the keepers can jump on the animal and do the treatment. Basically, the animal was out of choices, it might have known whatever I’m doing nothing is making them go away. The stress level is high and due to the fact that nothing what the animal tries works it lies down. It shows us Learned Helplessness because all the options the animal had do not work anymore.

What we can say about learned helplessness is that it is connected to a negative experience. The outcome for the animal is negative and there for makes a choice that sometimes goes against everything. Or maybe a choice that makes perfect sense to the animal! If an animal is being put in a position where it doesn’t have any other choice then “never come back” or freeze what is a common behavior what we overlook fairly quickly we can say that a negative experience added such a level of stress that the animal tries to cope with it through a freeze behavior or a not coming back to their trainer due to bad consequences.

Another example, I hold an animal with me that prefers to leave and tries to do so. The animal fights to leave but hurts itself more than when it would just stay. The animal is in both cases very uncomfortable but both choices aren’t helping the animal and the animal decides to do nothing anymore. This is as well learned helplessness.

It’s not a good thing when animals show us this. Through training techniques that aren’t thought through well enough for the animal’s sake we potentially mix up an animal being relax and calm with an animal that shows us learned helplessness. It happens more often then we actually think.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”

Categories: Trainer Talk



Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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