Learned Helplessness - Part Two

Learned Helplessness - Part Two

Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly and they come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation. Consequently, even when opportunities become available they do not attempt to escape or change their situation.

Learned helplessness was conceptualised and developed by American psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman and Steven Maier at the University of Pennsylvania during the late 1960s and '70s. They began their laboratory experiments with dogs and electric shocks; and then with humans and sound shocks.

Learned helplessness theory suggests that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation (link: see Gration, Learned Helplessness – Part One. 2021)

People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They can experience stress, demonstrate passivity or aggression and have difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behaviour such as neglecting diet, exercise and medical treatment.

Children & Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is not only the domain of adults.

Learned helplessness can begin very early in life, even at the infant stage. Children with a history of prolonged abuse and neglect at home or in family situations are especially at risk of learned helplessness Institutionalised infants, suffering from parental deprivation or inadequate parenting may develop learned helplessness symptoms due to the lack of adult responses to their actions. It is also possible for parents who feel helpless to pass this quality on to their children.

The detrimental effects of learned helplessness may also begin at school.

Curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation that is a key to fostering active learning and spontaneous exploration. A student who is susceptible to 'learned helplessness' might be intrinsically motivated at first but after failing at one task they can become intimidated by future tasks.

Repeated failures in classroom tasks can persuade the child that they are incapable of improving their performance. Repetition of task failures without an intervention or assistance can lead to motivational problems in the child.

For instance, a child may study for tests or examinations and achieve poor marks or grades, so they decide studying is a waste of time because they will fail anyway.

The child's lack of self-confidence in one task leads to a lack of interest and failure in other tasks, resulting in the deterioration of academic performance. This deterioration may be reinforced by negative feedback from parents, teachers or peers.

Signs of learned helplessness in students include: passivity, giving up, procrastination, decreased problem-solving ability and frustration, including demonstrative and disruptive behaviour. Learned helplessness students often give up trying to gain respect or developing self-esteem through academic performance. They resort to other measures to gain recognition such as becoming the class clown or bully. At best, in adolescence they may try to gain recognition and admiration through sport or artistic pursuits or at worst through antisocial behaviour.

As with their adult counterparts, children suffering from learned helplessness feel as if they have no choices because no matter what they try, they will fail.

New Helplessness Theories

Learned helplessness has become a basic principle of behavioural theory, demonstrating that prior learning can result in a drastic change in behaviour. The theory seeks to explain why individuals may accept and remain passive in a negative situation despite their clear ability to change the situation.

Learned helplessness, the failure to escape shock induced by uncontrollable aversive events, was proposed over half a century ago in 1967. Seligman and Maier theorised that helplessness was cognitive and that it was learned and therefore constituted being subjectively helpless rather than objectively helpless.

Seligman and Maier now say they got it wrong after acknowledging the tension between learning theory and cognitive theory.

By the mid-1990s, the neuroscience tools that had become available allowed a more detailed understanding of how the brain produces the behavioural consequences of uncontrollable aversive events.

The mechanism of learned helplessness is now very well-charted biologically and the original theory got it backwards. Passivity in response to shock is not learned. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events and it is mediated by the serotonergic activity of the dorsal raphe nucleus, which in turn inhibits escape.

(Maier & Seligman, 2016)

Most behaviours and emotions are not mediated by a particular structure but rather by a circuit, including the neural circuitry that regulates fight/flight and fear/anxiety.

Laboratory experiments by Grahn et al (1999) were able to show that inescapable shock activated the neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus that contained 5-HT (Serotonin) and equally, escapable shock did not produce serotonin in that region of the brain.

If inescapable shock were to produce a powerful activation of the dorsal raphe nucleus 5-HT neurons and lead to the release of 5-HT in structures such as the amygdala and dorsal periaqueductal gray, then this structure would hold the potential to be a crucial node in any learned helplessness circuit.

The neural circuitry explains and predicts phenomena that are not explained or predicted at the psychological level. There are three main takeaways from the neural circuitry that might inform thinking about therapy and psychopathology.

The first is that the default response of higher organisms to prolonged bad events seems to be passivity and heightened anxiety and that this is caused by the activation of the dorsal raphe nucleus.

The second is that top-down higher cortical processes from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex inhibit this default response. The passivity and heightened anxiety symptoms of learned helplessness map quite well into symptoms of depression (Seligman 1975; Weiss et al, 1985) and perhaps those of post-traumatic stress disorder (LoLordo & Overmier, 2011).

The third has to do with the well-established enduring effects of cognitive interventions (Cuijpers et al., 2013).

(from - Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P., 2016.)

Speculations, Therapy and Optimism

Recent research by Maier, Seligman, Grahn and others has revealed:

The inability to escape from aversive shocks does not alter our brain; it is the brain's circuitry response to aversive shocks that alters our behaviour.

In the hands of a skilled and experienced therapist, exercises about the past and the present are typically done with the purpose of changing future behaviour, such as better recognizing triggers for past maladaptive responses in order to avoid those triggers in the future or gaining insight into catastrophizing in order to learn how to be more optimistic in the future.

Latest circuitry speculations indicate that it is the preparation for the future that is likely to be the most effective aspect in therapy and so it is helpful to know the locus of its effectiveness.

Confronting the past is common in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) where re-appraisal is used to re-interpret a past or present bad event.

Much of CBT is future–oriented: Problem solving; activity scheduling; crisis response plans; role play in assertiveness training; and 'when one door closes, another opens'; all involve simulating future situations and trying to prepare for those effectively.

There also exists a variant, of CBT, called "Future Directed Therapy" that as yet is insufficiently validated (Vilhauer, 2014).

In conclusion, the neural circuitry underlying the phenomenon of learned helplessness strongly suggests that helplessness was not learned in the original experiments. Rather passivity and heightened anxiety are the default mammalian reaction to prolonged bad events. What can be learned is cortical—that bad events will be controllable in the future.

We are mindful that in the theory of explanatory style, "hope" consists largely in the habit of expecting that future bad events will not be permanent, global, and uncontrollable, rather they will be temporary, local and controllable (Seligman, 1991, pp. 48-49).

Such expectations are likely the best natural defense against helplessness and we speculate that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex - dorsal raphe nucleus circuit may be usefully thought of as the "hope circuit."

The translation back to the psychological level enables the neuroscience work to potentially inform clinical practice.
(from - Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P., 2016.)

If Opportunity Doesnt Knock

Building Resilience

Since 2000, Seligman has been described as the 'father of positive psychology' following his more recent insights into 'learned helplessness':

Strangely, about a third of the animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never become helpless. What is it about them that makes this so? Over 15 years of study, my colleagues and I discovered that the answer is optimism. We discovered that people who don't give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable.

(Seligman M.E.P., 2011.)

This led Seligman to begin developing ways to immunise people against learned helplessness, depression and anxiety and against giving up after failure by teaching them to think like optimists through a Resiliency Program.

He also believes that businesspeople can draw lessons from this approach, particularly in times of failure and stagnation.

In 2008, the US Army Chief of Staff and former commander of the multinational forces in Iraq asked Seligman what positive psychology had to say about soldiers' problems. Seligman responded with:

I offered a simple answer: How human beings react to extreme adversity is normally distributed. On one end are the people who fall apart into PTSD, depression, and even suicide.
In the middle are most people, who at first react with symptoms of depression and anxiety but within a month or so are, by physical and psychological measures, back where they were before the trauma. That is resilience.
On the other end are people who show post-traumatic growth. They, too, first experience depression and anxiety, often exhibiting full-blown PTSD, but within a year they are better off than they were before the trauma. These are the people of whom Friedrich Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

(Seligman M.E.P., 2011.)

Seligman designed a course for soldiers based on PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment—the building blocks of resilience and growth. And he used a Global Assessment Tool (GAT), a 20-minute questionnaire that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses and is designed to measure four things: emotional, family, social, and spiritual fitness (not referring to religion but belonging to and serving something larger than the self.)

All four have been credited with reducing depression and anxiety. And according to research, they are the keys to PERMA and identifying positive character traits such as curiosity, creativity and bravery.

Aristotle, Socrates and Courage

Contemporary literature defines Bravery as the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear. Courage, on the other hand, is the quality of confronting something painful, difficult or dangerous despite having fear.

Greek philosopher, Socrates (469-399 BC) believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. Socrates maintained that human choice was motivated by the desire for happiness.

Socrates left no writings, and most of our knowledge of him and his teachings comes from the written dialogues of his most famous pupil, Plato (427-347 B.C.).

The Laches is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. Participants in the discourse present competing definitions of the concept of courage.

At the time, 'courage' was variously defined as endurance of the soul or wise endurance; knowledge of the fearful and hopeful; and knowledge of good and evil. Socrates found each one of these proposals inadequate.

Throughout the Socratic Laches dialogue, two distinguished generals, Nicias and Laches take turns attempting to define the nature of courage while Socrates mediates and responds. By the end of the dialogue Socrates has defeated each of the arguments by the generals and proven to them that they cannot say what the nature of courage is because they cannot define it.

Socrates described 'fear' as the expectation of future evils and 'hope' as the expectation of future good. However, Socrates pointed out the difficulty in defining 'courage' by using the following examples:

1. The Athenian consensus regarding courage in war consisted of remaining at one's post and fighting the enemy.
Socrates' objection:
At times courageous soldiers do not stand their post but strategically withdraw to attack later, as the Spartans did at Plataea.

2. courage is a sort of endurance of the soul.

Socrates' objection:
Courage is a noble and advantageous quality; but foolish endurance is evil and hurtful; mere daring or, worse, foolhardiness is not Courage hence the definition is too wide.

3. Courage is a wise endurance.

Socrates' objection:
Wise at what? A businessman, physician, soldier or even a diver are not necessarily Courageous but merely clever and skilled at their jobs.

Aristotle (384–322 BC) joined Plato's Academy in Athens when he was 17 years old. He believed that courage was a virtue – a marker of moral excellence. Courage means knowing what to fear and responding appropriately to that fear. For Aristotle, what mattered isn't just whether you face your fears, but why you face them and what it is that you fear. Courage is a paradigm regarding fear and confidence.

Aristotle left Athens in 343 BC to tutor Alexander the Great.

Hero's Journey

The hero's journey, or the monomyth, is the common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed and with the power to bestow boons (improvements in the quality of life) on their community.

The monomyth was first recognized as a pattern in mythology by Joseph Campbell, who noticed that heroes in mythology typically go through the same 17 stages in their journey toward hero-dom within three major phases: departure, initiation and return.

Campbell's assertions were outlined in his 1970 publication, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell's theory incorporates a mixture of Jungian archetypes, unconscious forces and Arnold van Gennep's structuring of rites of passage rituals.

The term "archetype" means original pattern in ancient Greek.

Campbell may also have been influenced by the work of Soviet scholar and folklorist, Vladimir Propp, who analysed the basic structural elements of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible structural units. Propp's writing, first acknowledged in the West when it was translated into English in 1958, explores the relationship between characters and narrative within a hero-quest model.

Some of the qualities of Jung's Hero archetype have been described as:

Motto: "where there's a will, there's a way"
Core desire: to prove one's worth through courageous acts
Goal: expert mastery in a way that improves the world
Greatest fear: weakness, vulnerability, ineffectuality
Education: motivated and learns through competition, enjoys team sports
Relationships: moulds others, takes on projects to transform others
Strategy: strength, discipline, competence through training regimes
Spirituality: evangelises, converts others, adopts spiritual regimes
Weakness: arrogance, represses emotions to prevail
Achievement: assertiveness, confidence, respect, courage

The Hero is also known as the warrior, crusader, rescuer, superhero, soldier, dragon slayer, winner and the team player.

Campbell studied religious, spiritual, mythological and literary classics and cites the similarities in these stories, including the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed and Jesus.

Females who feature as heroes in mythology and literature include Artemisia, Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine the Great.

Carol S. Pearson writes:

Heroes take journeys... The need to take the journey is innate in the species. If we do not risk, if we play prescribed social roles instead of taking our journeys, we feel numb; we experience a sense of alienation, a void, an emptiness inside.

(The Hero Within, 1989)

The Art of War

Written around the 5th century BC, The Art of War is a military manual attributed to Chinese military strategist, Sun-Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each one is devoted to a different set of skills or arts related to warfare and its application to military strategy and tactics.

The Art of War has influenced Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, legal strategies and community activism.

Chapter XI recognizes nine situations or types of battlegrounds (1) scattering ground; (2) light ground; (3) strategic ground; (4) open ground; (5) crossroad ground; (6) heavy ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) enclosed ground; (9) desperate ground.

As in Sophocles description of 'courage', a soldier does not always 'maintain one's post to fight the enemy' in order to be courageous or to achieve success.

For example, Sun-Tzu advises the following strategies when fighting on different types of battle grounds:

"Do not fight on scattering ground" i.e. make the mess of war on enemy territory not home territory.
"Do not halt on light ground" i.e. don't stop after a shallow entry into enemy territory.
"Do not attack on strategic ground" i.e. ground that offers equal advantages to both sides.
"Deep in enemy territory is heavy ground – fortify the rear and plunder" i.e. hold the territories gained and disarm the enemy forces.
"Form alliances on crossroad ground" i.e. where the ground borders 3 or more jurisdictions.
"Devise stratagems on enclosed grounds" i.e. twisting paths and narrow gorges etc where a small enemy force can strike our larger one.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
(Sun-Tzu. The Art of War, circa 5 BC)

In The Activists' Handbook – a step-by-step guide to participatory democracy, Aiden Ricketts offers the following advice:

The habit of passivity can be broken by taking action (however small); for some it [passivity] is forcibly broken by intolerable circumstances, but many take what they see as a small stand on something eminently reasonable and are surprised to become a local 'hero'.

(Ricketts 2012, p. 251)

SOS and Activism

The Save Our Spit Alliance (SOS) was formed during 2003 as a volunteer-based, not-for-profit community alliance of Gold Coast residents, visitors and passive tourism operators committed to preserving the Gold Coast Spit, Broadwater and their foreshores, beaches, islands and waterways as public open space for future generations.

refer History of SOSA

SOS came into being to 'take a stand' (perhaps driven by the neural circuitry response that regulates fight/flight) when the Queensland Government invited Expressions of Interest (EOI) from private entities to construct a cruise ship terminal (CST) on the Gold Coast Spit and Broadwater. In return for building the CST, private entities would be granted several hectares of public land on Doug Jennings Park for the construction of private residential highrise apartments, hotels and commercial developments.

The areas concerned are of high value as public open space, environmental, ecological, recreational and eco-tourism assets to residents, tourists and visitors to the Gold Coast. The areas are covered by '3 jurisdictions' - Local Government, State Government and Federal Government; hence the need for SOS to form alliances on these metaphoric "crossroad grounds" as described in The Art of War


The first Save Our Spit - Public Rally was held in Doug Jennings Park in 2005. It was one of the largest protest rallies in Gold Coast history with over 3000 people attending, including residents, divers, boaties, fishers, surfers, visitors, politicians and families. In the Art of War, this location could be termed 'light ground' i.e. a shallow entry into enemy territory.

However, the 'enemy' used News Ltd. print media in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the rally (see gaslighting below) with headlines such as:

Rat bag hysteria hold... Nuremberg rally at the Spit this weekend

(Courier Mail, Qld. 2005)

Despite the success of the rally, several SOS supporters retreated to 'learned helplessness' behaviours when they claimed,

You can't win. You're wasting your time... You've got the state government and a media empire against you. They always win.

However, SOS organisers did not 'halt on light ground' after the first 'shallow entry into enemy territory'. The SOS committee organised several more rallies, media stunts and, at the time, procured the largest petition in Queensland history with over 38,000 hardcopy signatures (before e-Petitions) opposing the private takeover of public parks and open space on The Spit and Broadwater.

Mutiny on the Broadwater rally:

Mutiny on the Broadwater rally

Sensing the SOS momentum, Government officials invited SOS representatives to meet with them at a local surf lifesaving club to see if they could be intimidate or induce SOS into backing off the campaign. But SOS did not succumb to fighting on this 'strategic ground' i.e. ground that offers advantages to both sides.

Instead, SOS fought on 'heavy ground' through undermining the incumbent Labor State Government's seat of power by supporting candidates and political parties in the upcoming elections who opposed the cruise ship terminal and the associated private commercial takeovers of public land and open space.

The State Government lost one Gold Coast seat in a by-election in 2005 and polling revealed they could lose other seats on the Gold Coast and possibly lose Government if they persisted with their CST plans. On the eve of the 2006 State election, the CST project was abandoned by the Queensland Labor Government.

SOS has continued to fight on 'heavy ground' having fortified its position on enemy territory in 2006.

For instance, following the election of a Liberal National Party (LNP) State Government in 2012 and the election of an LNP biased Gold Coast local council the same year, elements within these government entities pushed even harder to resume huge tracts of public parks, beaches, open space and waterways for private and commercial uses.

Once again, they proposed building a massive cruise ship terminal, foreign hotels, casinos, marinas and highrise residential apartment towers, right in the heart of the publicly owned and nature-filled recreational and environmental spaces of The Spit and Broadwater.

This time the LNP Government welcomed EOIs from dubious foreign development entities including those owned by the People's Republic of China who were/are building illegal military islands in the South China Sea. SOS worked hard to 'deeply enter enemy territory' during 2003-2006 and then the continued to battle to 'fortify and hold territory' through to 2021. SOSA also adhered to the following Sun-Tzu adage:

"Do not fight on scattering ground" i.e. home territories.

SOS became an incorporated association in Queensland in 2006 with the legal protection this offered individuals in the SOS alliance in case the enemy tried to sue individuals (putting their homes, personal savings and businesses at risk) through Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) defamation suits. A SLAPP against the SOS Alliance was in fact attempted unsuccessfully by the Gold Coast Mayor's business lawyer and developer associate in 2013 -14.

SLAPP link: http://www.saveourspit.com/No_Terminal/news/NewsArticle.jsp?News_ID=214

Since 2012, SOS has followed The Art of War direction to:

"Devise stratagems on enclosed grounds" i.e. twisting paths and narrow gorges etc. where a small enemy force [government officials and development industry] can strike our larger one.

During 2012, using the strategic strengths of social media – Facebook, Website, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Email (that were not available during the 2003 - 2006 campaign), SOS transformed into a respected research, publishing and technical information dissemination organisation. SOS has a 'Research Library' on its website homepage that houses over 200 technical reports, critical analyses and informative articles, written over the period from 2005 to current times.

This strategy was devised to counter the propaganda, lies and misinformation from Local and State Governments and the local News Ltd. media publications. The strategy also served to make more efficient and effective use of the time and expertise of the SOS Alliance volunteer committee and members.

SOS also enlisted the assistance of 'insiders' to gain access to 'secret' and redacted technical reports that the Local Council would not release in full (or at all). SOS then published the contents and analyses of these documents to share with the Gold Coast Community.

And SOS cultivated the use of humour and satire to expose the hypocrisy, duplicity, dishonesty and secrecy of the enemy through memes, graphic art, documentary videos and social media commentary.


Ricketts points out:

...if activists themselves appear stressed, negative and overworked, it's not very tempting for others to join in... activism needs to be made fun, and you are not letting the side down by insisting on fun... another part of keeping it fun is celebrating success.

(Ricketts 2012, p.260)

TZU Supreme Art Of War Quote

According to Sun-Tzu,

the highest victory is defeating the enemy without even fighting.


Sensing a change in the general attitude towards the social, economic and environmental values of Gold Coast public open space, parks, beaches and waterways etc., SOS began negotiations with the State Opposition Labor Party during 2014 in the lead up to the 2015 State election which Labor (against all predictions and polls) duly won.

SOS in allegiance with other community groups then lobbied for and helped set up 'terms of reference' for a Spit-Broadwater Masterplan. The Masterplan framework would involve genuine community stakeholder consultation towards the preservation, enhancement and maintenance of The Spit and surrounding waterways.

In 2020, following 18 months of community consultations and workshops, the Spit Master Plan was enshrined in State legislation and is currently being implemented by the Queensland Labor Government. However, the current Gold Coast Mayor continues to battle with the Save Our Spit Alliance in his effort to gain approval for an industrial scale Oceanside Cruise Ship Terminal (OCST) on a public park on The Spit that has high nature values and will disturb turtle nesting sites and migratory bird roosts; the construction of a rock-wall 1 km off the shore in whale migratory paths and resting sites; and the building of a 1km long docking jetty into ocean swells, with negative impacts on a world class surf beach.

The ongoing SOS Alliance war against the 'enemy' is not without its costs in volunteer time; financial, career, recreational and family sacrifices; combined with the enemies' legal, verbal, emotional and physical threats and their 'gaslighting' of SOS and its leaders in consort with some elements of the local media.

The SOS Alliance has lost some members and leaders along the way due to the emotional and psychological stresses encountered during the first campaign (2003-2006) and owing to the length of the current campaign (2012 – 2021).

However, Ricketts reminds us:

... to avoid burnout. Do not put life on hold until the campaign is won. Most campaigns take a lot longer to achieve success than you may expect and some may never be complete, so you have to be able to 'live on the road'.

(Ricketts 2012, p.259)

A Sense of Purpose

Associate Professor Peggy Kern from The University of Melbourne - Centre for Positive Psychology provides the following insight:

We don't know exactly why it makes so much difference, but we do know that there are both physical and mental health benefits associated with having a sense of purpose.

Professor Peggy Kern

Kern suggests, we can think of 'purpose' as the thing that gets us out of bed each morning and "aligns with your values and who you are as a person."

She also notes:

While your purpose can result in setting goals that help you pursue it, not all goals align with your purpose. Goals are often things that society or others set for us rather than being intrinsically motivated where they serve our sense of purpose and are often easier to achieve, as a result.

Professor Peggy Kern

It is possible to have a number of purposes running concurrently; for example, participation in community activism or community volunteering; chasing career success; establishing family stability; sporting achievements; artistic pursuits etc.

Kern also suggests that "our sense of purpose can change over time and at different stages in our life."
(Kern in New Direction by Karen Fittal, 21 March 2021)

The SOS Alliance campaign is a living example of thousands of community members working with resilient leaders who have found a long-term purpose and who are intrinsically motivated in their activism to save the remaining parks, beaches, waterways, islands and foreshores on The Gold Coast Spit and Broadwater from the ravages of the financial greed and self-interest of public officials and commercial entrepreneurs.


In 2021, a courageous female political staffer in Canberra, Brittany Higgins, revealed that she had been raped in an Australian MP's office in 2019 by another staffer. The attempted cover up by her employers and the 'victim blaming' that followed unleashed a tsunami of complaints by female staffers, journalists and Members of Parliament.

These women (or women they knew) had also suffered sexual harassment, sexual assaults, rape, bullying and the accompanying intimidation that had previously kept them silent within the toxic culture of their workplace in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia.

On 15 March 2021, the newly formed 'Women's March4Justice' organisation conducted nationwide marches to protest against gendered violence in Australia.

The protests were inspired by Ms Higgins and the 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, who fought for several years to have women's voices heard in relation to the legal silence imposed upon victims/survivors of sex crimes while the perpetrators under the existing laws were free to speak publicly. Perpetrators of gendered sexual, emotional, verbal and physical violence often used this legal loophole as an opportunity to denigrate, attack and blame the victims of their crimes.

DARVO is an acronym for "deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender".

DARVO describes how perpetrators of interpersonal violence deflect blame and responsibility when they are confronted about their abusive behaviour.

The DARVO acronym and analyses is based on the work of psychologist, Jennifer Freyd, who writes:

...I have observed that actual abusers threaten, bully and make a nightmare for anyone who holds them accountable or asks them to change their abusive behavior. This attack, intended to chill and terrify, typically includes threats of law suits, overt and covert attacks on the whistle-blower's credibility, and so on. The attack will often take the form of focusing on ridiculing the person [gaslighting] who attempts to hold the offender accountable. The offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense.

(Freyd, J.J., 1997)

DARVO fits into the categories of violations of power, adaptive blindness and betrayal trauma theory. It refers to a reaction displayed by the perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, in response to being held accountable for their behaviour.

DARVO is a common manipulation strategy of psychological abusers. The abuser denies the abuse ever took place, attacks the victim for attempting to hold the abuser accountable and claims that they, the abuser, are actually the victim in the situation, thus reversing the reality of the victim and offender. This usually involves not just "playing the victim" but also victim blaming.

The first stage of DARVO is denial, and it involves gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception or judgment. It may evoke changes in the victim such as cognitive dissonance or low self-esteem, rendering the victim additionally dependent on the gaslighter for emotional support and validation. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilise the victim and delegitimize the victim's beliefs.

Gaslighting is often used on social media platforms such as Facebook or in statements by powerful people to the media such as that of the Australian Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, in response to media questions surrounding Ms Higgins' allegations of rape inside Parliament House:

Dutton claimed:

...I wasn't provided with the 'she said/he said' details of the allegation. It was at a higher level.

Federal MP Peter Dutton

Dutton's comment was followed by an outburst from the Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, in whose Parliamentary Office the rape is alleged to have taken place and for whom Ms Higgins was working at the time of the alleged rape. After Ms Higgins went to the media with her story, Reynolds shouted audibly in front of her Parliamentary office staff:

Lying cow.

Federal MP Linda Reynolds

These responses by senior government officials are known as Institutional DARVO. It occurs when the DARVO is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity) as when police charge rape victims with lying.

Institutional DARVO is a pernicious form of institutional betrayal. Freyd concludes:

While much more research is needed, the results suggest that DARVO is an effective strategy to discredit victims but that the power of the strategy can be mitigated by education.

(Harsey, S. & Freyd, J.J, 2020)

People are much less likely to believe and accept a DARVO response by a perpetrator once they understand the mechanics of this commonly used technique.

Knowledge is power, and the more people who know about DARVO, the less effective it becomes and the less often DARVO victims will suffer long term 'learned helplessness', depression or PTSD.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches cognitive tools that can be used to reduce destructive negative thoughts and emotions and to show those suffering from 'learned helplessness', PTSD and those who are victims of DARVO, that there are things they can do to achieve control and cultivate post-traumatic growth.

There are five elements known to contribute to post-traumatic growth:

Richard Tedeschi, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, created a learning module that begins with the ancient wisdom that personal transformation comes from a renewed appreciation of being alive, enhanced personal strength, acting on new possibilities, improved relationships or spiritual deepening.

The module has been successfully used interactively with soldiers suffering PTSD:

1. Understanding the response to trauma (read "failure"), which includes shattered beliefs about the self, others, and the future. This is a normal response, not a symptom of PTSD or a character defect.

2. Reducing anxiety through techniques for controlling intrusive thoughts and images.

3. Engaging in constructive self-disclosure. Bottling up trauma can lead to a worsening of physical and psychological symptoms, so soldiers are encouraged to tell their stories.

4. Creating a narrative in which the trauma is seen as a fork in the road that enhances the appreciation of paradox—loss and gain, grief and gratitude, vulnerability and strength.

5. Articulating life principles. These encompass new ways to be altruistic, crafting a new identity, and taking seriously the idea of the Greek hero who returns from Hades to tell the world an important truth about how to live.

(from Martin E.P. Seligman, 2011)

... by understanding our own hero's journey, we can become agents of positive change for ourselves, for others, and for our community.

Joseph Campbell

Researched, compiled, composed, written and edited by Dr Steve Gration – March/April 2021.

Dr Gration is the President of the Save Our Spit Alliance Inc. (2005-2021) - Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.


Campbell, J. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. NY, 1970.

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Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO): What is the influence on perceived perpetrator and victim credibility?

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