||Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal
||Christopher Peterson, Steven E Maier, and Martin E. P.
||Oxford University Press, Inc. © 1993
Oxford University Press, Inc.
200 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
These three authors have been involved in the theory of learned
helplessness from the beginning of the concept in the mid 60s. In
this book of nine chapters and 359 pages, they review developments in the
theory and the research evidence. They attempt to clarify what they
believe to be overenthusiastic and inappropriate applications of the
theory and its concepts, and give a realistic picture of what has been
accomplished and what may remain to be done.
Chapter 1 describes the history and the current status of the theory
and the associated research. Chapter 2 sets forth the research done
with animals. This is where the theory began. Chapter 3 is a
summary and clarification of the biological factors involved and the
research data related to arousal states and neurotransmitters. The
present status of the data relating to people and learned helplessness is
dealt with in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 adds the concepts and research
surrounding attribution theory to the picture to assist in explaining the
phenomena observed. Depression and learned helplessness make up
Chapter 6. In Chapter 7 learned helplessness is applied to selected
social problems, illustrating the way in which the theory may illuminate
some puzzling aspects of human behavior. Physical health related to
learned helplessness is discussed in Chapter 8, and the final conclusions
and discussion of the concept are in Chapter 9.
It is refreshing to find psychologists so strongly identified with a
large, interesting, and successful area of scientific research who so
clearly say their interest has been badly handled by others. Learned
helplessness as a psychological theoretical concept has an innate interest
and attractiveness because it immediately appears so reasonable.
This is likely one of the major reasons for its wide acceptance and the
many attempts to use it in alliance with other concepts. Each
chapter has two concluding sections on what is known and what is not
known. These succinct and straightforward sections are a model for
what scientists can do to express the limits and qualifications of their
research programs. It would be beneficial and contribute to the
development of a more rigorous scientific approach if all authors were as
aware of the limitations of research data and the cautions that should be
followed as are these three scholars.
The authors are aware of instances in which they feel the theory has been
extended into areas where it is inappropriate. One of these, for example,
is the battered women's syndrome literature. Lenore Walker and those who
posit the battered women's syndrome rely heavily on the concepts of learned
helplessness to support their view. The authors clearly see this
application of their work as problematic and do not endorse it. They do
not see the behavior of women fitting the concepts and data of learned
This is a good, interesting, and helpful book. It is a model for
cautious and responsible treatment of a highly visible and controversial area.
It should be read by all professionals concerned with understanding human
behavior as responsive to stress and not being in control.
Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological
Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.