Myles, C. and Hatfield, J., University of Sydney, Australia
Learned helplessness refers to a syndrome of motivational, cognitive and emotional deficits (including lowered self-esteem) that is induced by exposure to uncontrollable events. This study tested the hypothesis that learned helplessness contributes to obesity. Several obesity-related experiences, including repeated failed weight-loss attempts and bodyweight stigma, may promote learned helplessness deficits that maintain obesity (for example by reducing physical activity and undermining the motivation to embark on a weight-loss program). The study investigated whether various features of learned helplessness (including perceived lack of control, especially over future weight-loss attempts) were more prevalent amongst 47 obese patients (BMI>0kg/m) from a hospital-based obesity clinic, than amongst matched non-obese participants (BMI<0kg/m). The efficacy of a new Learned Optimism Group Treatment (LOGT) was evaluated for reducing learned helplessness and improving weight-loss. Obese patients were randomly assigned to the new treatment or a control group. Half of each group were also participating in a hospital weight-loss treatment program (HWLT), whereas the other half were wait-listed for this program. The efficacy of the hospital program and its enhancement by the learned optimism treatment were thus examined. Participants given LOGT demonstrated significantly greater weight-loss than those who were not. Further, LOGT enhanced HWLT for several obesity-relevant outcomes. However, improved weight loss, the crucial variable of the study, was found to be significant. These results suggest that learned helplessness plays a role in maintaining obesity, and indicate the practical value of addressing learned helplessness in treatments of obesity.