Attribution and affect in learned helplessness and depression

Johnson, Elaine
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The learned helplessness theory of depression states that laboratory-induced helplessness provides a model for naturally-occurring depression in humans. However, the model is weak insofar as depression is regarded primarily as an affective disorder, and similarity of affect of helplessness with that of depression has not been satisfactorily demonstrated. The first purpose of this study was to compare the affect of helplessness with that of depression. Students subjected to a series of four 10-trial insolvable problems were compared on resultant affect with a group of depressed students. The affect measure was designed to tap a wide array of negative feelings, and analyses were conducted which allowed the strongest affects for each group to be isolated and compared;The second purpose of this research was to investigate the role of attributions for task failure on resultant affect in helplessness. It is possible that certain attributions result in affect more similar to the affect of depression than others. One group which received insolvable problems in the present study was not supplied with any information about its failures; four additional groups were supplied with information designed to lead them to attribute their failures to either a lack of ability, low effort, task difficulty, or having been tricked by the experimenter. The nondepressed groups were compared on affect and subsequent anagram performance. Results showed that the helplessness induction was ineffective--none of the groups which received insolvable problems performed significantly more poorly on the anagrams than a group of untreated controls. Also, very little negative affect was aroused among any of the nondepressed groups. The depressed sample reported much greater distress than other groups, but given the overall lack of behavioral and affective "helplessness" effects, comparisons with helplessness-treated groups were not meaningful. The lack of effects was discussed in terms of egotism theory. It appears that subjects' esteem may not have been sufficiently threatened for helplessness to occur.