‘Learned Helplessness’ in UX

One of the most fascinating studies in psychology is the condition of Learned Helplessness. The first time I ever heard of this study was back when I was pursuing my bachelors in Cognitive Psychology. This study, along with its results and possible implications, fascinated me and has had me pondering how this could affect our everyday behavior, decision-making, and ultimately our future.

The father of Learned Helplessness, Martin Seligman, initially performed his study on dogs. However, the outcome was so fascinating that his lab ended up doing follow up studies in order to examine its affects on humans as well.

Just to give you an overall view, here is Wikipedia’s definition:
“… a condition of a human person or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.”

In plain English, when an individual learns that something is not possible, he/she will believe this, while feeling helpless, for ever! Well, ‘for ever’ sounds too strong but I am just trying to make a point here. Individuals presented with situations where they  believe that they have no control over, subsequently, will experience stress, helplessness, and withdrawal. This affect increases when the situation presents unpredictable events too.

Now, imagine if a web/mobile interface (a site or an app) presents users with situations of ‘learned helplessness’. What would the outcome be? In other words, imagine an interface presenting users with situations of unpredictability and loss of control. Not only would this make users feel like failures but it would also make them feel helpless. The amazing part is that not only would the user learn helplessness but, according to this study, even their audience would learn helplessness too. To clarify, when it comes to that specific interface, whoever watches the user and whomever the user shares the ‘story of helplessness’ with would learn being helpless too … even if they never themselves used that specific interface. This is a serious outcome that a ‘web-creator ‘would probably never find out!

So, what is the remedy? I strongly believe that raised awareness among web-creators is definitely a first step. Often times, as creators, we have hard time seeing and understanding how a user would truly interact with the web. Therefore, thinking like a user, although extremely difficult, may helps us create solutions that actually end up solving a problem, as opposed to creating additional problems for the users.

Disclaimer: I am sure many UX:ers, such as Donald Norman, have already made this connection and have extensively addressed it. I just had to talk about it too, as this topic fascinates me and feels close to the heart!

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3 responses to “‘Learned Helplessness’ in UX

  • Jeremy Britton

    I came across this same topic through a book the ZURB team is reading by John Medina called Brain Rules. One thing that is interesting to note about Seligman is that he turned away from his study of learned helplessness and has embraced “positive psychology” and what he calls “learned optimism,” which you could call a remedy.

    One example of learned helplessness I’ve experienced with the iPad is with its strict hit area at the top of its keyboard when typing. It is so easy to accidentally miss the top of the QWERTY keyboard and touch the email edit area that I make repeated mistakes. I’ve learned not to type long messages on the iPad because of this and that’s a shame.

    Give the wealth of available options in most online product markets, don’t you think the likelihood of learned helplessness is pretty low? People who aren’t satisfied simply bow out and try another product instead. They don’t get stuck or feel helpless when they have other options available to them.

  • Dmitry

    Awesome analogy between the study and how it applies to online products. Here is a great practical example of this in action, thought you’d appreciate: http://www.pamgriffith.net/blog/how-do-we-design-for-learned-helplessness

  • Jason S.

    Interesting. This reminds me of how users become comfortable with crappy interface design, and then other designers justify their own crappy interface design based on the “convention,” creating a media culture death spiral. Ooh. That’s what I’m naming my next band.

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