Channeling the River: Using Positive Psychology to Prevent Cultural Helplessness, as Applied to African-American Law Students

Document Type

Thesis or dissertation

Date of this Version



Helplessness deficits are characterized by an organism’s failure to escape escapable situations after exposure to aversive stimuli. It has recently been learned that helplessness is the mammalian default protective response, and that it is subdued as mammals learn to control their environment. Human helplessness responses are mediated by our ability to think; explanations for adverse stimuli that tend toward the individual’s inability to control a stimulus can cause a person to exhibit helplessness deficits. This paper proposes a theory of cultural helplessness, positing that information and beliefs spread through cultural transmission can provide individuals with automatic explanations, which can potentially lead to helplessness deficits across a population when group members are subjected to similar aversive stimuli. This theory is applied to a group of African-American law students who have the ability to score well on the LSAT and pass the Bar Exam on the first try, but do not. Positive psychology, applied as part of an interdisciplinary strategy, is proposed as a way to help these students to perceive themselves as being in control of their fate, thus allowing them to achieve according to their ability.


learned helplessness, explanatory theory, culture, race, capital deficiency theory


Achievement, Education





Date Posted: 07 October 2016