Effects of Learned Helplessness on Weight Loss & Exercise

Dr. Frank B. Smoot, MA, DD One of the most famous and most revealing experiments in the history of psychological research involved the subject and effects of learned helplessness. I don’t have the room here to tell you as much about it as I’d like to, but any Psychology 101 textbook will cover the topic.

However, there is one experiment that offers powerful insight into the impact of learned behavior. Although this experiment was conducted using dogs as subjects, the discoveries apply to human behavior as well. The core of the experiment revolved around setting up unpleasant conditions from which the dogs were initially unable to escape. Eventually, they stopped trying.

They simply gave up and “accepted their fate.”

That was no surprise. Later, however, the same dogs were subjected to the same unpleasant conditions under circumstances where the means of escape was both obvious and easy. Yet the dogs — now “conditioned” to accept the unpleasantness — made no attempt at all to escape. This came as quite a surprise to the researchers. But the real shocker came a bit later, when a new and “unconditioned” group of dogs was put in with the conditioned ones. The minute the circumstances became unpleasant, the same easy-and-obvious means of escape was made available to all the dogs. The new, unconditioned ones left immediately.

But the conditioned dogs made not the slightest attempt to leave their very uncomfortable circumstances — even when they saw the other dogs leaving from the very same pen they, themselves, were in!

So what does this have to do with your ability or inability to lose weight? Everything! First, it shows that extremely self-sabotaging behaviors can be learned, and learned very quickly under the “right” circumstances. Secondly, it shows that a sense of helplessness can be maintained long after the circumstances that first caused it have ceased to exist. But most importantly, it shows that if we are conditioned to feel helpless, we can fail to act in our own best interest even when the opportunity for healthier action presents itself — and even when others around us are making progress right before our eyes!

What this means to you is that, if you are chronically overweight, you almost certainly have been exposed to some disempowering circumstances in your life. Further, it means that, even though those circumstances that made you feel helpless may be long gone, you may still be acting — reacting — as if the threat or problem still exists.

In other words, a small chunk of “bad programming” may be all that’s keeping you overweight!

This landmark experiment also proved that maladaptive behaviors (like those that may underlie your excess weight) can exist indefinitely, and for no good reason. The good news is, what was learned can be unlearned. But only if your eyes are open! Until you can acknowledge the problem and seek the solution, you have no choice but to suffer endlessly and needlessly — just like the poor, unfortunate dogs who “learned” to be helpless.

Is that OK with you?
Dr. Frank B. Smoot, MA, DD
Weight Loss Success Coach and Counselor
Creator of the “Get Motivated For Life!” and
“Weight Loss God’s Way” success programs.

Article Categories: Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation
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