The effects of the performance and gender of relevant peers on the development of universal and personal helplessness



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Texas Tech University


No other theory of depression has generated as much research as Seligman's (1975) learned helplessness theory. The theory recently was revised to account for the fact that humans attribute the events in their lives to specific causes. Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale's (1978) reformulated learned helplessness theory predicts that whether individuals make internal or external, stable or unstable, and global or specific attributions for their lack of control determines the extent, severity, and duration of the resulting helplessness effects.

Specifically, the reformulated theory differentiates between individuals who uniquely lack control and who make internal attributions for this experience (personal helpless condition) and those that make external attributions because they are not alone in lacking control (universal helpless condition). Universally helpless individuals show cognitive and motivational deficits and often display depressed affect as well. Personally helpless individuals are more likely to display depressed affect and also experience a loss of self-esteem. In addition, the depressed affect and the cognitive and motivational deficits experienced by the personally helpless individuals are particularly severe.

The present study had two major purposes. One was to test the predictions made by the reformulated theory regarding universal and personal helplessness. The study attempted to induce the conditions of universal and personal helplessness by having students directly compare their performances with those of a peer. The second purpose of the study was to test whether the gender of this peer affected the students' development of learned helplessness.

Evidence that the personal helpless students displayed more depressed affect thaji the universal helpless students was observed. In addition, personal helpless, but not universal helpless students displayed more depressed affect than control students. However, personal helpless students> when compared with the universal helpless students, did not display the predicted cognitive and motivational deficits or decreased self-esteem.

In addition, no significant differences in cognitive and motivational functioning, degree of depressed affect, or level of self-esteem were observed when students who participated in the study with a male confederate (helpless same condition) were compared with students who participated with a female confederate (helpless opposite condition). These findings were inconsistent with the study's predictions that the helpless opposite students would display cognitive and motivational deficits, lower self-esteem, and a greater degree of depressed affect. However, helpless opposite, but not helpless same students were found to display a greater degree of depressed affect than control students.

Additional findings indicated that, as predicted, helpless students displayed more depressed affect than nonhelpless or control students. However, contrary to predictions, helpless students did not display predicted cognitive and motivational deficits. Also, students' attribution ratings did not support the predictions of the reformulated theory that the formation of internal, global, and stable attributions for lack of control is associated with more severe helplessness. However, there was evidence that students made self-protective attributions: they tended not to make internal or stable attributions for their experiences of noncontingency.

The results of the present study provide only partial support for the reformulated theory of learned helplessness. However, the study is important in that it is one of only a few to induce helplessness by having students compare their performances with those of a peer. In addition, it is one of the few to present students with an experience of noncontingency and then measure both the attributions they form for their performances and the resulting helplessness symptoms. Researchers in the future are encouraged to investigate how social factors and the attribution process affect the elicitation of helplessness, and what characteristics make some individuals particularly susceptible to or immune from the development of learned helplessness. In addition, a determination of whether an expectation of noncontingency or some other factor is responsible for producing the symptoms of learned helplessness is a crucial, pressing need.