The debilitating effect of exposure to noncontingent escape: A test of the learned helplessness model


  • The authors are especially grateful to Stephen G. West for his thoughtful comments and support.


Two studies were conducted to test the hypothesis that exposure to non-contingent escape leads to performance deficits similar to those observed when subjects are exposed to noncontingent aversive outcomes from which there is no escape, and that causal attributions mediate these deficits. Previous attempts to produce “appetitive helplessness” (deficits resulting from exposure to noncontingent positive events) have been plagued by subjects' tendency to believe that they are responsible for positive events. In Experiment 1, 40 subjects were exposed to contingent or noncontingent noise escape trials. As predicted by the learned helplessness model, subjects who received inescapable noise performed less well on a subsequent anagram task than subjects exposed to escapable noise. Similarly, subjects who escaped from the noise owing to the benevolence of a powerful other rather than because of their own efforts, showed performance deficits paralleling those of the inescapable noise subjects. In Experiment 2, subjects who escaped an aversive tone through no effort of their own showed subsequent performance deficits, but globality of their self-reported attributions did not predict subsequent anagram performance. The results of these studies provide support for the hypothesis that uncontrollability, independent of the valence of a particular outcome, is responsible for helplessness deficits, but do not support the mediational role of attributions, at least in the laboratory.