Flight or Flight or… Freeze?

by Devina Sen

Are we victims of circumstance? How much can we endure? Must we endure? When we are faced with a problem and work to solve it, there comes a point where we must question whether it’s worth it to keep going. We make a choice, to keep putting in effort or to give up, and this choice isn’t made arbitrarily.  Many psychologists consider our personal belief in our control over our fate to play a role in our decision-making process. A psychologist at Cornell, Martin Seligman decided to investigate this idea further.

Before explaining the details of the experiments conducted by Seligman, please take a moment to acknowledge that the studies were conducted on animals during the 1950s and the methodology is highly frowned upon today on ethical grounds. This should be recognized as we honor the results and conclusions of the research.

Seligman’s main experiments were conducted to determine whether one’s belief in their ability to control their situation was an innate or learned behavior and whether one’s belief drove their choices. The researchers split mongrel dogs into three groups, a control group, an “in-control” group, and a “no control” group. In the first phase, the dogs in the control group were strapped into a harness one at a time and let out. The dogs in the “in-control” group were paired with dogs from the “no control” group and the dogs from each pair were put in harnesses in separate rooms at the same time. While the dogs were in the harness, a non-damaging but painful electric shock was given to both dogs from one side of their respective rooms. The “in-control” dogs had a panel on the other side which they could press with their nose to stop the shock and once they pressed it, the shock for both dogs would stop. In this way, the dogs in the “in control” group could determine what happened to them and started to anticipate the shocks, pushing the relieving panel faster. Meanwhile, the dogs in the “no control” group started to whimper and show anxious traits as the trial progressed. In the second phase of the study, all the dogs from the three groups were placed one at a time into a box with two chambers separated by a shoulder-level wall. The floor of the chamber the dogs were placed in administered the same electrical shock as before.

Dogs from the control group and “in-control” group were quick to realize they could jump over the wall and save themselves from the next shocks. However, two-thirds of the dogs from the “no control” group lay down whimpering and did not attempt to save themselves, enduring the pain instead. In fact, even after watching other dogs escape the shocks by jumping over the wall and after researchers brought the dogs into the other chamber to show them that it was safe there, the dogs would still make no attempt to jump over the wall. The dogs did not believe they had control in their situation.

These experiments give way to the Theory of Learned Helplessness, where humans or animals that are conditioned to expect inescapable pain or discomfort begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless even when they have the opportunity to change their circumstances. Individuals that exhibit these behaviors seem to believe they have no control over what happens to them and that it is useless to try and gain some control (in the case of Seligman’s experiment, attempt to save themselves). Because the dogs in the control group had the will to find a way to avoid the shocks, we can see that learned helplessness is not innate.

How does this matter? Learned helplessness has a strong connection to depression and its associated cognitive, emotional, and motivational deficits that can impact a person’s behavior and quality of life in the long run. Not only does learned helplessness contribute to health outcomes like maladaptive perfectionism, anxiety, and exacerbating existing conditions, but it contributes to low self-esteem and passive behavior that can cause problems in areas such as education, job hunting, and domestic violence situations. A student who believes they cannot do better in school, whether for internal or external reasons, will not put in as much effort, which can lead to poor performance, which reinforces the student’s notion that they are helpless, which further diminishes the student’s motivation, which… get the picture?

All of the above stems from one simple thing: a belief. A person must believe that control is possible, that they are in the driver’s seat no matter the circumstances. Adopting a positive mindset and combating thoughts of hopelessness or acceptance can offset symptoms of learned helplessness. After all, each of us is faced with opportunities to exercise control and make change every day!



Ackerman, C. (2018, August 23). Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression ( Cure). Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/learned-helplessness-seligman-theory-depression-cure/

Iyengar, S. (2012). The art of choosing. London: Abacus.


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