Learned Helplessness: The Effect of Failure on Test-Taking

By Firmin, Michael; Hwang, Chi-En et al. | Education, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Learned Helplessness: The Effect of Failure on Test-Taking


Firmin, Michael, Hwang, Chi-En, Copella, Margaret, Clark, Sarah, Education


This study examined learned helplessness and its effect on test taking. Students were given one of two tests; the first began with extremely difficult questions and the other started with easy questions. We hypothesized that those who took the test beginning with difficult questions would become easily frustrated and possibly doubt their intellectual ability. This would result in the participants missing easy questions when compared to those who took the test which began with the easy questions. The result of the study confirmed our hypothesis. The results of this study could also be applied to other classroom tests and standardized tests where learned helplessness could negatively affect test scores.

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Learned helplessness is a phenomenon containing three components: contingency, cognition, and behavior. Contingency addresses the uncontrollability of the situation. Cognition refers to the attributions that people make regarding their situation or surroundings of which they are a part. Behavior allows individuals to decide whether they will give up or proceed with the obstacle set before them (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993).

When people experience learned helplessness, they have a tendency to give up easily or fail more often at somewhat easier tasks. Learned helplessness is more likely to result from situations where failure is uncontrollable. For example, Gernigon, Fleurance, and Reine (2000) conducted a study on failure in controlled and uncontrolled circumstances. They found that failure was more likely to occur in uncontrollable circumstances.

Another study, conducted by Stiensmieier-Pelster and Schurmann (1989), addressed failure in terms of blaming the results on internal or external factors and how performance was affected by the response. They performed two tests on subjects and then rated their performances. The researchers found that the subjects who related the failure to internal causes, such as the task was intellectually too difficult for them personally, were more inclined to give up than those who attributed their failures to external causes, such as thinking that the test itself had impossible questions.

Many factors load into the construct of learned helplessness. For example, the type of situation may affect the way that people respond to difficult tasks. If a person is forced to perform in public, factors such as anxiety influence performance. In learned helpless situations, performance deficits often result from low motivation due to the beliefs that the person is not in control (Witkowski & Stiensmeier-Pelster, 1998).

Learned helplessness has an effect on a wide cross-section of people. Kashdan et al. (2000) applied the construct specifically to disruptive children. They compared mothers who experienced high-social anxiety with mothers who had low-social anxiety by placing them with an uncontrollable, deviant child in an experimental setting. The researchers had hypothesized that the mothers with high-social anxiety would be more distressed after the interaction with the child, and as a result, they would have many negative feelings. The measures of distress included self-ratings, observed mood ratings, heart rate, and blood pressure. In the end, the experiment and the experimenters hypotheses were supported; correct-mothers with high social anxiety showed a lower threshold for activated negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and irritability and less positive interpersonal engagement.

Learned helplessness can affect one type of person more than another. A study conducted by Milich and Okazaki (1991) suggests that ADHD boys become frustrated more easily when confronted with failure than those without ADHD. Tasks were presented to 23 boys diagnosed with ADHD and 22 boys comprising a control group. The tasks involved solving word puzzles where in one condition the tasks were extremely hard and the others were relatively easy. …

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