Learned Helplessness and Superstitious Behavior as Opposite Effects of Uncontrollable Reinforcement in Humans
Learned helplessness and superstition accounts of uncontrollability predict opposite results for subjects exposed to noncontingent reinforcement. Experiment 1 used the instrumental-cognitive triadic design proposed by Hiroto and Seligman (1975) for the testing of learned helplessness in humans, but eliminated the "failure light" that they introduced in their procedure. Results showed that Yoked subjects tend to superstitious behavior and illusion of control during exposure to uncontrollable noise. This, in turn, prevents the development of learned helplessness because uncontrollability is not perceived. In Experiment 2, the failure feedback manipulation was added to the Yoked condition. Results of this experiment replicate previous findings of a proactive interference effect in humans—often characterized as learned helplessness. This effect, however, does not support learned helplessness theory because failure feedback is needed for its development. It is argued that conditions of response-independent reinforcement commonly used in human research do not lead to learned helplessness, but to superstitious behavior and illusion of control. Different conditions could lead to learned helplessness, but the limits between superstition and helplessness have not yet been investigated.