IPT Book Reviews

Title: Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control  Positive Review Positive Review
Authors: Christopher Peterson, Steven E Maier, and Martin E. P. Seligman
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1993

Oxford University Press, Inc.
200 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
$35.00 (c)


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 helplessness.

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.

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