FOCUS ON RESEARCH The I Cant Do It Attitude

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FOCUS ON RESEARCH The I Cant Do It Attitude
Chapter 5
Cognitive Processes in Learning
䉴 Can people learn to be helpless?
In the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists in North America tended to look
at learning through the lens of behaviorism. That is, they saw classical and operant conditioning as the automatic, unthinking formation or modification of associations
between observable stimuli and observable responses. They gave little consideration to
the role of mental activity that might accompany the learning process.
As mentioned earlier, though, this strictly behavioral view of classical and operant
conditioning is now challenged by the cognitive approach, which has become increasingly influential in recent decades. Cognitive psychologists see classical and operant
conditioning as helping animals and people to detect and understand what causes what
(Young, 1995). They argue that both types of conditioning result not only from automatic associations but also from more complex mental processes—including how
information is represented, stored, and used. These processes, they say, underlie our
ability to adapt to, and understand, the world around us (Dickinson, 2001).
Cognitive psychologists have found, for example, that a classically conditioned
response (such as fear) is more likely to develop if an unconditioned stimulus (such as
electric shock) comes as a surprise than if it is expected (Kamin, 1969). Even the brain’s
reaction to a given stimulus can differ depending on whether that stimulus was
expected or unexpected (Waelti, Dickinson, & Schultz, 2001). In other words, according to the cognitive view, learning is affected not only by the nature of the stimuli we
experience but also by our expectations about them (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972). Further, just as our perceptions depend on the meaning we attach to sensations (see the
chapter on sensation and perception), learning can depend on the meaning we attach
to events. So being praised by a boss we respect may be more reinforcing than getting
the same good evaluation from a boss we hate.
The importance of cognitive processes has also been demonstrated in research on
learned helplessness, latent learning, cognitive maps, insight, and observational learning.
Learned Helplessness
Babies learn that crying attracts attention. Children learn how to make the TV louder.
Adults learn what actions lead to success or failure in the workplace. On the basis of this
learning people come to expect that certain actions on their part will cause certain consequences. But sometimes events are beyond our control. What happens when our actions
have no effect on events, and especially when our escape or avoidance behaviors fail? If
these circumstances last long enough, one result may be learned helplessness, a tendency to give up on efforts to control the environment (Overmier, 2002; Seligman, 1975).
Learned helplessness was first demonstrated in animals. As described earlier, dogs in
a shuttle box will learn to jump over a partition to escape a shock (see Figure 5.8). But
if the dogs first receive shocks that they cannot escape, they later do not even try to
escape when the shock is turned on in the shuttle box (Overmier & Seligman, 1967).
It is as if the animals had learned that “shock happens, and there is nothing I can do
about it.” Do people learn the same lesson?
learned helplessness A process in
which a person or animal stops trying
to exert control after experience suggests that no control is possible.
hat lessons do abused and neglected children learn about their
The “I Can’t Do It” Attitude
ability to get what they need from
the environment? Do they learn that even
their best efforts result in failure? Do they give up even trying? Why would a student
with above average ability tell a counselor, “I can’t do math”? How do people develop
an “I can’t do it” attitude?
Cognitive Processes in Learning
■ What was the researcher’s question?
Can lack of control over the environment lead to helplessness in humans? Donald
Hiroto (1974) conducted an experiment to test the hypothesis that people develop
learned helplessness either after experiencing lack of control or after simply being told
that their control is limited.
■ How did the researcher answer the question?
Hiroto (1974) randomly assigned research participants to one of three groups. One group
heard a series of thirty bursts of loud, obnoxious noise and, like dogs receiving inescapable
shock, had no way to stop it. A second group could control the noise by pressing a button to turn it off. The third group heard no noise at all. After this preliminary phase, all
three groups were exposed to eighteen additional bursts of noise, each preceded by a red
warning light. During this second phase, all participants could prevent the noise if they
pushed a lever quickly enough. However, they didn’t know whether to push the lever left
or right on any given trial. Before these new trials began, the experimenter told half the
participants in each group that avoiding or escaping the noise depended on their skill.
The other half were told that their success would be a matter of chance.
■ What did the researcher find?
The people who had previously experienced lack of control now failed to control noise
on about four times as many trials as did those who had earlier been in control
(50 percent versus 13 percent). This finding was similar to that of the research with
dogs and inescapable shock. When the dogs were later placed in a situation in which
they could escape or avoid shock, they did not even try. Humans, too, seem to use prior
experiences to guide later efforts to try, or not to try, to control their environment.
Expectation of control, whether accurate or not, also had an effect on behavior. In
Hiroto’s study, those participants who expected that skill could control the noise exerted
control on significantly more trials than did those who expected chance to govern the
result. This outcome occurred regardless of whether the participants had experienced
control before.
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■ What do the results mean?
These results support Hiroto’s hypothesis that people, like animals, tend to make less
effort to control their environment when prior experience suggests that those efforts
will be in vain. But unlike animals, humans need only be told that they have no control or are powerless in order for this same effect to occur.
Hiroto’s (1974) results appear to reflect a general phenomenon. When prior experience leads people to believe that there is nothing they can do to change their lives or
control their destiny, they may stop trying to improve their lot (Faulkner, 2001;
LoLordo, 2001; Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993). Instead, they may passively endure
painful situations. Has this ever happened to you?
■ What do we still need to know?
Further research is needed on when and how learned helplessness affects people’s thoughts,
feelings, and actions. For example, could learned helplessness explain why some battered
women remain with abusive partners? We do know that learned-helplessness experiences
are associated with the development of a generally pessimistic way of thinking that can
produce depression and other mental disorders (Peterson & Seligman, 1984). People with
this pessimistic explanatory style see the good things that happen to them as temporary and
due to chance and the bad things as permanent and due to internal factors such as lack
of ability. This explanatory style has, in fact, been associated with poor grades, inadequate
sales performance, health problems, and other negative outcomes (Bennett & Elliott, 2002;
Seligman & Schulman, 1986; Taylor, 2002). The exact mechanisms responsible for this connection are still unknown, but understanding how pessimistic (or optimistic) explanatory
styles can lead to negative (or positive) consequences remains an important focus of
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