Poor performance following unsolvable problems: Learned helplessness or egotism?

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Abstract

People often perform poorly on tasks following experience with unsolvable problems. The current experiment tested 2 competing explanations (learned helplessness and egotism) for this performance deficit. 40 college students were given either solvable or unsolvable discrimination problems and then a series of anagrams that were alleged to be either highly or moderately difficult. Ss previously given unsolvable problems did better on the anagrams when led to believe that the anagrams were highly difficult than when led to believe that the anagrams were moderately difficult. This result is contrary to a learned helplessness theory interpretation, which attributes performance deficits following unsolvable problems to the belief that outcomes are independent of responses. Instead, this result supports an egotism explanation, which maintains that people are not likely to try hard on a task following experience with unsolvable problems (i.e., following failure), unless a poor performance would not pose a further threat to their self-esteem. (27 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved)

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