A re-view of cognitive mediators in learned helplessness


  • Howard Tennen

    1. University of Connecticut Health Center
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    • Requests for reprints should be addressed to: Howard Tennen, Department of Psychiatry, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, Connecticut 06032.

  • The author wishes to thank Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman for their support and encouragement during the preparation of this manuscript.


The findings of Oakes and Curtis (1982), Tennen, Drum, Gillen, and Stanton (1982), and Tennen, Gillen, and Drum (1982) provide a challenge to learned helplessness theory's focus on cognitive mediators of the helplessness phenomenon. In response to these findings, Alloy (1982) argues that these studies do not challenge helplessness theory because they do not measure expected control and because they confuse necessary and sufficient causes of learned helplessness. Silver, Wortman, and Klos (1982) contend that these studies provide an inadequate test of the model because subjects are confronted with experiences which are unlike those in their natural environment. The present article argues that by Alloy's (1982) criteria, an adequate test of the learned helplessness model has not yet been conducted. Previous studies which measured expected control have not supported the model's predictions. Moreover, if perceived response–outcome independence is a sufficient, but not a necessary cause of learned helplessness, the model loses much of its heuristic value. In response to the argument that these studies lack ecological validity, this article clarifies the distinction between experimental realism and mundane realism. While real-world studies have discovered intriguing relations between perceptions of control, attributions, and coping with illness or victimization, they have not tested predictions of the learned helplessness model.