Hopelessness theory

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A number of the problems with the reformulated learned helplessness theory have led at least some of its proponents to offer a second reformulation which they have called hopelessness theory (Abramson et al., 1988, 1989). Both in terms of name and in terms of content, hopelessness theory has been placed squarely within the framework of Beck's cognitive therapy. Because we will deal with Beck's approach in the next section, the coverage of hopelessness theory will be brief and will focus on the differences from the first reformulation.

The hopelessness reformulation is summarised in Figure 4.2. This figure illustrates that one of the key differences is that hopelessness requires only the occurrence of negative events rather than uncontrollable events; thus, it had always been problematic that depressed individuals seemed to blame themselves for events that, according to learned helplessness theory, they should perceive to be uncontrollable (e.g., Peterson, 1979). Hopelessness theory resolved this apparent contradiction through questioning the necessity for perceived uncontrollability. A second key difference is that the main outcome is hopelessness rather than helplessness, a shift that further de-emphasises the role of the lack of control per se, but which places the emphasis on perceived negativity instead.




Negative affect (Emotional deficit)



Low self-esteem


Increased chronicity of deficits

Increased generality of deficits


Expection of future uncontrollability (Cognitive deficit) Passivity

(Motivational deficit)

Figure 4.2 An outline of the revised hopelessness theory.

Hopelessness theory also makes some adjustments to the combinations of the attributional dimensions and their consequences; thus, low self-esteem is now seen to derive from an internal-stable-global attributional style, rather than only from an internal style, and a combination of stability and globality is seen to lead to generality and chronicity of the depressive deficits.

The revised proposal has received some empirical support from its own proponents (e.g., Metalsky, Joiner, Hardin, & Abramson, 1993), but more recently a further restriction of the theory has been presented in which it is meant to apply only to a subtype of depression that has been revealingly labelled as "hopelessness depression" (see Abramson et al., 2002, for a review). Support for this role of hopelessness comes primarily from the cognitive therapy literature, the approach that we will deal with next.

Over a number of years Beck and his colleagues have developed an approach to the emotional disorders known as cognitive therapy. Although Beck's original focus was on depression (see Beck, 2005), this focus has gradually broadened (e.g., Beck, 1976; Clark & Beck, 1999) and now includes substantial contributions to the theory and treatment of anxiety (Beck & Emery, 1985), personality disorders (Beck, Freeman, & Davis, 2004), addictions (Wright, Beck, Newman, & Liese, 1993), schizophrenia (Beck & Rector, 2005), and bipolar disorders (Newman et al., 2002). In the original versions of the theory there was a simplistic model of the link between cognition and emotion; namely that cognition causes emotion. However, more recently Beck (e.g., 1987; see also Weishaar, 1993) has stepped back from this strong version and has stated that cognition is not the cause of emotional disorders, but is part of a set of interacting mechanisms that include biological, psychological, and social factors. Other cognitive

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