Work got you down? It may be Learned Helplessness.

Hey everyone – happy Sunday.

It’s a beautiful day here in San Francisco. I’ve been sitting on the balcony and reading one of the early works of one of the greatest psychologists of all time—Martin Seligman (I get wild on the weekends, I know). He’s best known as the father of Positive Psychology, which studies the causes of human happiness and flourishing. However, before he was the king of happiness he was the king of misery.

Seligman spent most of his 20s and 30s studying crippling despair, also known as “learned helplessness”. He and his colleagues noticed that if they placed an animal in a cage and exposed it to an aversive stimulus (a shock, uncomfortably loud noise, etc.) but gave it no way of escaping (or stopping the stimulus), the animal would give up and sit around idly—accepting the terrible state of things. According to the researchers, the animals learned that they had no control over the situation, so they would just give up. It was pointless to resist.

The researchers noticed that this low energy state that they observed looked a lot like clinical depression seen in humans. And so “learned helplessness” became one of the dominant models of what was happening to those suffering from depression.

Seligman and his colleagues got really really good at making dogs slump over in despair, but they also wanted to know whether they could get these canines to snap out of it. If they could find the solution, they could have a huge impact on millions of melancholic individuals throughout the world. So they started to try things out.

They were doing these experiments in a “shuttle box” (pictured below). Half of the box was electrified, and half of the box was safe (free of electricity). The dogs in the helpless condition were trapped on the electrified side. They couldn’t get over to the other side of the box to escape the shocks. After a certain number of electrocutions, these animals would just give up and sit idly—as expected.

After the dogs were sufficiently helplessness, Seligman and his colleagues started to experiment with different ways of “snapping them out of it”. First, they got rid of the restraints on the dogs, so that they could head over to the safe side. But the dogs did nothing. They just sat there, helpless. Then, Seligman started to call to the dogs from the safe side, demanding them to come over. Nothing. Then, he placed a reward (a nice piece of delicious salami) on the safe side—as an enticement. Still, nothing.

Finally, Seligman and his colleagues decided to try something a bit bolder. They decided to drag the dogs to the safe side. In other words, they forced them to escape. After Seligman dragged each of the dogs to the safe side between 25 and 200 times, all of them were snapped out of their learned helplessness. They started responding appropriately to the shocks they were receiving.

A nice, storybook ending, isn’t it?

So why am I telling you this? What does this have to do with us hardworking professionals?

A lot, actually.

The learned helplessness experiments teach us a great deal about motivation, and how it can be encouraged (or destroyed)—especially in a work context.

Have you ever worked at a company that constantly shifted priorities and kept canceling the projects you were working on?

After the second or third time your project was canceled (and all your hard work was lost), I wouldn’t be surprised if you became demotivated and even depressed.

Our minds aren’t stupid, after all, and the message they’re getting in that situation is quite clear: no matter what you do, you will be punished. All the hard work you’re putting into this project right now doesn’t matter. We’re going to flush it down the toilet.

Dan Ariely writes about this in his newest book, “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations”:

“A few years ago, I was invited to speak about the topic of decision making to a group of a few hundred engineers at a big Seattle-based software firm. During the years before I met them, the mandate for this carefully recruited, experienced, and brainy bunch had been to create something fabulously innovative that would become the next big thing for this staid software company.

The engineers dove into the challenge with enthusiasm. They conducted tons of research. They built an almost-working prototype. They were all proud of their work, having spent long hours—including evenings and weekends away from their families—to make this awesome thing happen. They believed their invention would transform their company and make it the innovation giant it should have been.

After a short introduction, I started talking about some research that I was working on. I began by describing a set of experiments that Emir Kamenica (a professor at the University of Chicago), Drazen Prelec (a professor at MIT), and I had carried out—studies that unexpectedly resonated with the engineers.

In these experiments, we asked participants to build some Lego Bionicles. These are marvelously weird Lego creatures that kids can creatively assemble in many different ways. We picked Bionicles as the object of our investigation because the joy of Lego is almost universal across cultures and ages, and because building with them resembles, at least conceptually, the creative process that is so central to innovation in the workplace.

We divided the participants into two different conditions. We offered the participants in one group $2 for the first Bionicle they built. We told them that at the end of the experiment, we would disassemble the Bionicles, put the pieces back in the box, and use the same Bionicle parts for the next participant. The participants seemed perfectly happy with this process.

After these participants assembled their first Bionicle, we placed their completed creations under the table for later disassembly. We then asked: “Would you like to build another one, this time for eleven cents less, for $1.89?” If the person said yes, we gave him another one, and when they finished that one, we asked, “Do you want to build another?” this time for $1.78, another for $1.67, and so on. At some point, participants said, “No more. It’s not worth it for me.” On average, participants in this condition built eleven Bionicles for a total take-home pay of a bit more than $14.

The participants in the second condition were promised the same amount of money per Bionicle, so they had the same financial incentive. But this time, as soon as they finished building a Bionicle and started working on the next one, we began disassembling their completed Bionicle. Right before their eyes. Once we finished undoing their work, we placed the parts back in the box.

The first group built their Bionicles in what we called the “meaningful” condition, so called because they were allowed to feel that they had completed their work satisfactorily. We called the second condition the “Sisyphic” condition—named after the ancient Greek story about Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again and again for eternity. Those in the Sisyphic condition managed to build an average of seven Bionicles—four fewer than those in the “meaningful” condition.

As I described this experiment to the engineers, I added that we also looked at individual differences in terms of Lego love. Some people are naturally enthusiastic about building Bionicles, while others not so much. We wanted to see how this individual difference translated to productivity. In the meaningful condition, some participants were unenthusiastic about making Bionicles, so they made fewer of them. In contrast, those who loved making these creations were happy to assemble them for relatively small amounts of money. Basically, people who loved the task kept on going because they enjoyed the process and found meaning in it. (Of course, we weren’t talking about Meaning with a capital M. These folks weren’t curing cancer or building bridges; they were building plastic toys, and they understood that their creatures would be taken apart quite soon.)

But here’s what was so interesting: In the Sisyphic condition, we discovered that there was no relationship between the internal joy of making Bionicles and productivity. Those who weren’t terribly excited about Bionicles created about seven of them—the same number as those who loved building them. In general, we should expect that those who love Bionicles would build more of them, but by dismantling their creations right before their eyes, we crushed any joy that the Bionicle-loving participants could get out of this otherwise fun activity.

As I was describing these results, one of the chief engineers stopped me. “We completely understand the experiment you’re talking about,” he said, “because we’ve all just been part of the Sisyphic condition.“

They all nodded in sorrowful agreement. The chief engineer continued talking. “Last week, our CEO told us that our project was canceled, that the whole initiative was going to be scrapped, and that soon we would be assigned to other projects.”

Up to that point, I had wondered why the people sitting in front of me were so lethargic and depressed. Now I understood.

“Your situation,” I told them, “is also the way that some movies depict breaking the spirit of prisoners…”



For a moment, close your eyes and imagine that you are one of those software engineers. You’re in your late thirties or early forties, maybe with a young family at home. You’ve worked very hard through high school and college to earn great grades in computer science. Maybe you even earned an advanced degree. When the company hires you, you’re proud to have been selected because you know it has a reputation for hiring the cream of the crop. You buy a house in the Seattle area, a big investment that represents your commitment to stay at the firm for a while. You work hard every day, often during evenings and weekends, to meet your deadlines. You’ve built strong connections with your colleagues. You may even define your identity in relation to your workplace. As the end of the big, two-year project nears, you feel increasingly confident in the value of what you and your fellow engineers are creating.

And then the CEO makes his stupefying announcement. When that happens, you feel as if all that investment—what you’ve put into your work, your home, your education, and those collegial relationships—goes pfffft, like a deflated balloon. It’s not just the feeling of wasted work that disturbs you. Nor is it even what one may see as the CEO’s blindness. It’s the sense that your own life matters less—that who you are has been belittled somehow. You haven’t been working just for a paycheck or even a vision for the company: you’ve been working for yourself by building something that you cared about, and now all of this is gone. The CEO’s announcement snatches away not only your sense of trust, meaning, accomplishment, connection, and pride, but also some of your longer-term dreams and hopes.

Given all of this, it’s hardly surprising that some of the most innovative and senior engineers, now feeling “negatively motivated,” quit the company a few weeks after my visit.”

Ariely is talking about the sense of meaning at work—and this is exactly what is destroyed in learned helplessness. You learn that you’re not in control of your situation and that nothing you do matters. Life, to someone with learned helplessness, is meaningless. It’s nihilistic.

Have you ever worked for a boss who preferred to lead with a stick (rather than a carrot)? This is another common situation that can push us into a state of learned helplessness. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, you’re met with criticism. Nothing is good enough. You got done with project 1 on a crunched timeline, and now you’re being told that you better have project 2 (which should take 4 weeks) done by April 2nd—just 8 days away. The connection between your hard work and a feeling of success (or even approval) is broken. Nothing you do matters. Your boss will look upon you as a slacker no matter what.

Luckily, we have a strategy for escaping—as we outlined above. More on that in the next email.

Jason Hreha