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!