Learned helplessness and learned prevalence: exploring the causal relations among perceived controllability, reward prevalence, and exploration

Psychol Sci. 2014 Oct;25(10):1861-9. doi: 10.1177/0956797614543022. Epub 2014 Sep 5.


Exposure to uncontrollable outcomes has been found to trigger learned helplessness, a state in which the agent, because of lack of exploration, fails to take advantage of regained control. Although the implications of this phenomenon have been widely studied, its underlying cause remains undetermined. One can learn not to explore because the environment is uncontrollable, because the average reinforcement for exploring is low, or because rewards for exploring are rare. In the current research, we tested a simple experimental paradigm that contrasts the predictions of these three contributors and offers a unified psychological mechanism that underlies the observed phenomena. Our results demonstrate that learned helplessness is not correlated with either the perceived controllability of one's environment or the average reward, which suggests that reward prevalence is a better predictor of exploratory behavior than the other two factors. A simple computational model in which exploration decisions were based on small samples of past experiences captured the empirical phenomena while also providing a cognitive basis for feelings of uncontrollability.

Keywords: decisions from experience; exploration; feeling of control; learned helplessness; learning; open data; open materials; predictions; sampling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making
  • Exploratory Behavior*
  • Female
  • Helplessness, Learned*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult