Can you think of situations in which having an internal locus of control is a disadvantage? Under what circumstances would a person with an internal orientation experience relatively more stress than someone with an external orientation? What characteristics or situations would match the external locus of control person's expectations? When might it be healthy to have an external locus of control?
Some situations are truly beyond our control and cannot be influenced by us, no matter what we do. For example, a loved one may be dying from an incurable disease. This is not anyone's fault, and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent the outcome. However, even in such situations some people, particularly close relatives, can feel that they are somehow to blame. In such situations, an internal locus of control might be a handicap to personal coping with the outcome.
Another example is the "survivor syndrome" often reported by persons who have lived through a tragedy in which many other persons were severely injured or killed, such as in war or an airplane crash. Often, survivors report feeling that "if only" they had done something differently they could have helped others make it to safety. They often report some feelings of personal responsibility for the outcome, even though the event was horrifically outside of their control.
praises them and gives them good grades (Crandall, Katkovsky , & Crandall, 1965). Another scale was developed to examine locus of control expectations in marriage and whether people believe that their actions can influence the quality and outcom of their marital relationships (Miller, Lefcourt, & Ware, 1983). In all of these areas— health, academic behavior, and marriage—the general finding is that people with a internal locus of control tend to be more active in taking char ge, and they take more responsibility for the outcomes in these areas, compared with more externally oriented individuals.
We now turn to another individual dif ference in how people interpret the world— learned helplessness. Research on this topic also had its start in learning theory , similar to Rotter's start. Work on learned helplessness began when psychologists were studying avoidance learning in dogs and subjected the dogs to foot shocks from which the dogs could not escape. During the first few shocks, the dogs would pull at thei harnesses, jump and twist, and try to escape. Eventually , however, they seemed to accept the shocks and did not try to escape anymore. The dogs, apparently knowing that they could not escape, would passively accept the shocks.
The dogs were then put into a dif ferent cage, a cage where they could escape the foot shocks by simply jumping over a small barrier into a dif ferent part of the cage. However, the dogs that had received inescapable shocks earlier did not even try to escape in this new situation. It was as if they had learned that their situation was hopeless, and they gave up seeking to avoid their painful circumstance. Other dogs that had not been shocked earlier quickly learned to avoid the shocks by jumping over the barrier . The researchers were surprised that the learned helplessness dogs did not even try to escape and, so, turned of f the shock after one minute.
Next, the researchers tried lifting the dogs over the barrier to the safe part of the cage. After being shown how to reach safety , the dogs quickly learned to jump over and avoid the shocks. However , without such coaching, the learned helplessness dogs simply accepted their painful fates without attempting to remove themselves from the unpleasant situation.
Numerous studies document the learned helplessness phenomenon with humans (Seligman, 1992, 1994). Using unpleasant noise rather than shock, researchers set up the following learned helplessness situation. Participants are told that they will be given problems to solve, and they can avoid or turn of f the blasts of unpleasant noise by solving the problems (for example, by pressing buttons in a correct order) (Garber & Seligman, 1980; Hiroto & Seligman, 1975). Some participants (the learned helplessness subjects) are given problems without solutions. Consequently , for these participants, the unpleasant blasts of noise are inescapable—nothing they can do will control the irritating and aversive blasts of noise. But do these participants generalize their helplessness to new situations?
Participants are then taken to a new situation and given a new set of problems to solve. This time there is no unpleasant noise. The researchers tell the participants that they are simply interested in how the participants will work on these new problems. Participants who were exposed to the learned helplessness condition in the earlier trials usually perform much worse on the subsequent problems. It is as if they are saying, "What's the use in trying to solve these problems? They are too dif ficult.
Such participants appear to generalize their experiences of helplessness from one problem-solving situation to another .
Both learned helplessness theory and locus of control theory are about expectancies. In locus of control theory , people who have an external perspective believe that life events are outside of their control, similar to people who have gone through helplessness training. A fascinating study by Hiroto (1974) documented the combined effects of external locus of control and helplessness training to produce impaired escape behavior in humans. Participants who were selected to be either highly internal or highly external on the locus of control scale were run through a standard learned helplessness experiment. In the helplessness condition, participants were repeatedly exposed to a loud and unpleasant sound while they solved problems, and nothing they did would stop the bursts of aversive noise. Later they were given another set of problems to solve, where correct answers would stop the noise bursts. Results replicated the learned helplessness effect (those subjects exposed to the uncontrollable noise during training did not catch on that they could stop the noises in the second phase). However, participants who were high on internal locus of control exhibited less of this helplessness behavior and a higher proportion of them learned to escape the noises in the second phase, despite helplessness training. This important study illustrates the connection between locus of control and learned helplessness, and also shows that the effects of a helplessness experience may depend on the person' s general level of locus of control.
In real life, learned helplessness can result whenever people are stuck in an unpleasant situation that is apparently outside of their control. For example, imagine a woman who tries everything she knows to get her husband to stop abusing her . She tries being nice to him, and it works for a while, but soon he is abusive again. She threatens to leave, and this works for a while, but he starts abusing her again. No matter what she does, nothing seems to solve the problem. A woman in such circumstances may develop learned helplessness. She may give up even trying to solve the problem: "What's the use," she may say, "nothing I do seems to help, so maybe I just have to take it."
However, people in learned helplessness don' t have to "take it." They need an outside perspective and a new source of optimism. They need someone who can see the situation objectively and who can recommend strategies for solving the problem. Whenever a problem situation looks as if it has no solution or is inescapable, that is the time to ask others for help, to seek an outside opinion (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
The original model of learned helplessness began with experiments on dogs and was generalized to humans through experimental studies. Humans are more complex than dogs, at least when it comes to thinking about the events in their lives, analyzing situations, and forming new expectancies for behavior . What factors determine whether feelings of helplessness in one situation will spill over to other situations? Under what circumstances do people become motivated to take control of their lives? What factors influence people to decide that they do or do not have the ability to take control of a situation? In seeking answers to these questions, psychologists began to study what was going on in the minds of people who underwent learned helplessness conditioning (Peterson, Maier , & Seligman, 1993). The efforts to answer these questions about humans resulted in a reformulation of the learned helplessness model. The reformulated model focuses on how people think about and interpret the events in their lives (see the following A Closer Look).
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