Earned Success and Learned Helplessness

Arthur Brooks (surely one of the very few people to pursue a career as a professional player of the French horn before becoming a professor of business and government) has a good piece in today’s WSJ.

The opposite of earned success is “learned helplessness,” a term coined by Martin Seligman, the eminent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. It refers to what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit: People simply give up and stop trying to succeed.

During experiments, Mr. Seligman observed that when people realized they were powerless to influence their circumstances, they would become depressed and had difficulty performing even ordinary tasks. In an interview in the New York Times, Mr. Seligman said: “We found that even when good things occurred that weren’t earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people’s well-being. It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive.”

Read the whole thing.

3 thoughts on “Earned Success and Learned Helplessness”

  1. Good observation on attitudes, but no understanding of the family system roots of these attitudes. In Spain, the child grows up feeling that he has the right to his piece of the family wealth as long as he is obedient. In America, he knows he’s on his own when he grows up, although the parents may choose to help him from time to time. Brooks doesn’t understand the causal relationship — the attitude didn’t arise because the government started to give entitlements, the expectation already existed and the entitlement was transferred from the family to the state. This happened throughout Continental Europe (with the exception of a few places like Denmark and the coastal Netherlands) in the 19th and early 20th Centuries as industrialization and urbanization hit and kids had to leave the family farms.

  2. I sent the link to my daughter who is in a PhD program on Spanish history, especially the Andalusian period. She reads and speaks Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. She has already spent a year there, including time in Morocco, and is going back this summer. Her PhD program includes another two years in Spain, with expenses paid.

  3. James Bennett…”In Spain, the child grows up feeling that he has the right to his piece of the family wealth as long as he is obedient”…surely this is partly class-dependent in both countries? Among Spanish workers (as opposed to farmers and business owners), just as among American workers, there is very unlikely to be enough wealth to pass on to make a material difference. Unless *jobs* tend to be inherited?

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