Just Announced: Philippians Sermon Series

Summary: This messages discusses how we have allowed ourselves to become helpless when it comes to dealing with our life situations. We choose not to take the time to study God's word so we are not equipped to really handle things His way.

Learned Helplessness

Scriptures: 2 Timothy 2:15; 1 Corinthians 3:12-13


The title of my message this morning is “Learned Helplessness.” The theory of learned helplessness, in psychology, was conceptualized and developed by American psychologist, Martin E.P. Seligman, at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s and ’70s. The definition of learned helplessness is this: “is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness.” This is the clinical psychology definition.

When I was in school, we had to write book reports. Now I know some of the kids think they really write book reports today, but I want to talk old school and contrast the old way to today. Back in my day, when we had to write a book report, we actually had to leave our homes and go to the library. When you got to the library, you had to go through a card file (with the help of the librarian) to find the author and/or book(s) you needed to obtain the information for your report. After you found the source material you had to check the book out of the library (meaning you or a family member had to have a library card) and you took the book home. Once you got home the fun started as you had to actually write the paper by hand versus a computer keyboard. There were no computers and few families had typewriters. You had to write neatly so that the teacher could read it and it had to be formatted correctly. You also had to read or review the key chapters of the book to find the information you needed as there were no summaries available for you. Imagine having to actually do the research yourself! That was the old way. Today, a child can write a book report without leaving their home or going to the library. All they need is a computer, which most families have, and an internet connection. They can find multiple sources for their report in a matter of minutes. And, for the most part they can find summaries of the materials so they do not have to waste a lot of time actually reading the material. With this easily available information they can sit at the family computer and type their report and be finished in time to watch their favorite shows on TV. In my day it would take up to one or two weeks to get it done because of the amount of time it took to do the research and then to actually write it down on paper. Today it can be done in two or three days. Some would say it’s because of all the advancements we have made with technology, which is true, but the result of our technology is learned helplessness. Our children are not being made to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Let me give you a current example from my industry of learned helplessness.

In my industry we tell our representatives that they are the business owner of their geography. They have a defined geography based on zip codes and it is their responsibility to increase sales in their geography. They are the owners of their business – in theory. After we give them that ownership, we tell them which customers to call on; how many times they should see them; what product message they should deliver; how to deliver that message; and, to cap this all off, we send them reports letting them know how they are doing! Part of the reason we operate like this is because I am in a heavily government regulated industry and when things are done wrong, the results are large fines and possible prison time. Because we provide our representatives with all of this data, some of our sales representatives have learned to be helpless. If something is not given to them or they are not told how to do something they are helpless. But they also get to shift the accountability. If they did things exactly how they were told and the results are not there it’s not their fault because they did exactly what they were told in the exact manner they were supposed to do it. So the fault resides with the person who created the plan and not the one who implemented it. Learned helplessness – we have trained them to not think on their own and yet they are to be the owners of their business.

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