Mass Media as the Factor of Acquiring Learned Helplessness in the Digital Era

Arina Beliakova,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Anna Shibaeva,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


The present article relates to the work subfield of social and - more precisely - political psychology. Both interdisciplinary approach and practical applicability contribute to the relevance of the article.
Learned (or else personal) helplessness is traditionally studied in the framework of general psychology aimed at conducting diagnostic, consultative, preventive and corrective work with regard to a person's age features. Thus, placing this phenomenon on the political psychology agenda could provide a fresh outlook on the subject that has been profoundly studied. Learned helplessness could be viewed not only through interpersonal but through cross-group interaction, which is a strong suit of political psychology. The outcome of the research could be practically beneficial as considering learned helplessness as a side effect of mass media policy one assumes that it affects an individual's mind (which in the framework of the research is equal to a citizen's mind)

Keywords: learned helplessness, securitization, political psychology, mass media, violence, civil consciousness, citizenship


This research is based on the following methods: comparative historic method and traditional text analysis.

Main Body

The learned helplessness phenomenon was discovered by Martin Seligman in 1967. In the work «Helplessness: on Depression, Development, and Death» (Seligman, 1975) he defined learned helplessness as a state of mind acquired due to the previous fruitless experience in confronting the inimical environment. Such experience can prevent an individual from any attempts to change the environment in spite of having such an opportunity. Since 1950s many Western and Russian scholars have studied the phenomenon of learned helplessness. In 1960s S.Mayer, J.Overmayer, M.Seligman and R. Solomon conducted pioneering researches. The researches were conducted in the framework of behavioral paradigm with the use of animals for experiments. The second generation of researches based on cognitive psychology was carried out in 1970s by L.Abramson, M.Seligman and J.Teasdale. As for recent researches, works by K.Peterson, D.Khiroto, K.Dweck and L.Sobchik are worth mentioning. 

Russian approach to learned helplessness was shaped in 1990s by D.Tsiring, I.Devyatovskaya, E.Zabelina, E.Vedeneeva. Before 1990s scholars had focused on issues similar but not equal to learned helplessness, such as frustration, stress, depression, rigidity and attributions. Among those scholars were N.Baturin, T.Bokhan, B.Vyatkin, D.Karvasarskiy, V.Merlin, M.Reshetnikov, N.Tarabrina, K.Shafranskaya, G.Zalevskiy, V.Rottenberg, V.Arshavskiy, M.Dolgatov, N.Magomedova, T.Gordeeva, L.Rudina. Thus, in Russian psychological science learned helplessness is understudied.

Numerous samples show that 15-35% of focus-groups participants tend to develop learned helplessness. These figures are given in the work by D.Tsiring (Tsiring, 2010). Not only personal unsuccessful experience of confronting the environment but also vicarious experiences received through observing such experiences of other people promote learned helplessness. Today mass media are regarded as the most powerful source of transmitting such experiences.

Researches prove the hypothesis that mass media contribute to shaping learned helplessness. The research by M.Dubasova touches upon this issue (Dubasova). The experiment was conducted as follows. A group of respondents was asked to explain a number of personal failures and achievements ranging from a successful restoration of a fresco in Novgorod to the disqualification of Russian sportsmen. The explanations given by the members of the groups before and after watching news were vastly different. After watching the news the participants tended to base their explanations on objective rather than subjective factors. If one sees violence in media, the one does not get a personal unsuccessful experience of confronting the environment but instead one adopts the experience of another person exposed to violence. Human mind makes an individual feel in the victim's boots, thus causing fear that prevents the individual from normal interaction with the environment. 

The above-mentioned points relate to empathy. This concept was introduced by American psychologist Edward Titchener at the beginning of the XXth century. In the writing "Experimental Psychology" (Titchener, 1901-1905) he defined empathy as an individual's capacity to sympathize with another individual's emotions. Currently empathy is not regarded only as vicarious sympathy. Human mind automatically makes an individual feel in the boots of another person. This happens due to special "mirror” neurons in human brain. So modern scholars argue. Particularly, like ideas can be found in the joint work by G.Rizzolatti and K.Sinigaglia "Mirrors In The Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions" (Rizzolatti; Sinigaglia, 2012). Seeing violence in media people tend to sympathize actively or passively with the victims who are unable to help themselves.

However, it is important to understand that a government media policy is the result of scrutiny and efforts of experts and analysts and the policy is aimed at delivering certain messages to citizens, so it should not be pictured only in unfavourable light. In such cases learned helplessness is rather a side effect of securitization of some aspects concerning the government and society. As for securitization, it is the process of state actors transforming subjects into matters of security, according to the Kopenhagen School and, particularly, to its bright representative Barry Buzan. A problem must pose an existential threat to be securitized. In the work "People, States and Fear: the National Security Problem in International Relations" (Buzan, 2007) Buzan enumerates economic, environmental, social, political and military fields of securitization.

It is important to understand that methods and instruments of securitizing different issues vary. Thus, to securitize military and political issues mass media usually resort to cruel and violent scenes. Meanwhile one can note an obvious growth of the screen time devoted to political-military matters. Coverage from conflict zones is becoming more detailed, so the term “online wars” is relevant here. Jean Baudrillard described in details this method of mass media influence on the masses in his work “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” (Baudrillard, 2012). Baudrillard writes that despite the USA had powerful military forces, it avoided numerous open clashes in Iraq. Mass civilian casualties were not detected as well. This suggests that the Gulf War was far from the traditional war. However, mass media promoted the image of a full-scale conflict. Media outlets broadcasted detailed reports from the scenes in real time. This made the viewers feel the scale of the conflict.

All these facts highlight the gravity of the threat and contribute to the demonization of its source. The use of the above-mentioned motives is an appeal to the most fundamental human psychological reactions: fear and aggression. As for the latter, experiments show that for a part of the audience the appeal to aggression allows to solve the task of shaping intolerance to existential threats, for example, to terrorism (Libet, 1999).

So, the securitization of political and military issues has both positive and negative sides: on the one hand, a conscious demonstration of cruelty on the part of the media in matters that require "hard" securitization, as experiments show, is often able to achieve the set goal. On the other hand, as a side effect, a part of the audience, on the contrary, tends to shape learned helplessness. For example, in 2016, after appropriate media coverage of the terrorist attack in Nice, VTSIOM conducted a survey that revealed that of 56% of respondents who believed that the attack could have been prevented, only 3% believed that the attack had occurred due to the lack of citizens’ care (VTSIOM, 2016). Indeed, the hope for the state and its law enforcement bodies and national security agencies is an essential component of modern civil consciousness. Nevertheless, such low rates of active civil stand on this issue provoke the thoughts about the missed opportunities within the idea that security begins with every citizen.


To sum up, the problem posed is vital and relevant from the perspective of the further study and stimulation of an active civil stand in the matters that can be solved through the dialogue and “partnership” between the government and society.


  1. Seligman M. Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death / M. Seligman. – W. H. Freeman, 1975. – 250 p.
  2. Tsiring D. Psychological Aspects of Learned Helplessness / D.Tsiring. – Tomsk, 2010. – 456 p.
  3. Review of the experiment “Role of Media in Shaping Learned Helplessness”. – Mode of access (29.09.19)
  4. Titchener E. Experimental Psychology / E. Titchener. – In 4 volumes – 1901-1905.
  5. Rizzolatti G. Mirrors In The Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions / G.Rizzolatti, K.Sinigaglia. – 2012.
  6. Buzan B. People, States and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations / B.Buzan. – ECPR Press, 2007.
  7. Baudrillard J. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place / J. Baudrillard. Collected works and essays. – 2012
  8. Libet B. The volitional brain: Towards a neuroscience of free will / B.Libet, A.Freeman, J.K. B.Sutherland. — Imprint Academic, 1999. 
  9. VTSIOM Figures “Terroristic Attack in Nice: inevitability or a failure of the French security services”. Mode of access (19.09.19)