The risks of learned helplessness: pessimism and depression

During my middle school in a small town in Assam, we had a very strict English teacher (Goswami Sir). Kids who couldn’t answer his grammar questions got caned — never a word of encouragement.

I am pretty sure that in their mind, our teachers rank-ordered us as — ‘intelligent’, ‘moderately ok’, or ‘dumb’. And then, the kids rated ‘dumb’ rarely got encouragement — only the stick. Fortunately, since I was good with my studies, I didn’t really mind it that much.

But looking back, I can see the damage we caused. By labeling people as ‘dumb’, we make kids believe that their ability and talent were determined at birth and they couldn’t do much about it.

This mindset fuels the belief that we don’t have much control over what happens in our life, which psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness.’ You learn that you can’t change your situation in life.

‘Learned helplessness’ promotes pessimism and even increases the odds of the person suffering from depression in the future.

Be it in school or in the corporate world, by denying help and encouragement to people we label as ‘dumb’, we make them fail, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This confirms our bias and we repeat this mistake with even more confidence.

Time to stop this. No?


– Rajan


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