Do You Suffer From CLH? (Consumer Learned Helplessness)

Did you know that you can learn to be helpless? These days, a lot of people are showing signs of a new disease called CLH, or Consumer Learned Helplessness. Here’s how it works.

An experiment by Martin Seligman and Steve Maier showed that if you shock puppies over and over and they can’t stop it in any way, they will show signs of clinical depression afterward. What do you think happens if you take these same dogs and put them in a cage only one half of the floor is electrified? If you place them in the electrified part, they will just lay down and whimper, getting shocked over and over again. They have given up. They have stopped trying. Selignman and Maier termed this “learned helplessness.” But it’s not just for dogs.

After getting shocked from every angle for so long, with credit cards’ shrinking due dates, flagrant violations of our privacy, rebate scams as acceptable business models, and “it’s company policy” as the magic wand to excuse it any time a company screws us, that we just lie down and accept it.


Symptoms of this dangerous affliction include:

  • Sweating (when you see a fee on your bill you don’t understand and you figure you’ll never get it taken off)
  • Nausea (at the thought of having to call customer service)
  • Volume Control Problems when you call customer service (either speaking as quietly and meekly as a mouse, or finding yourself saying things like IM NOT YELLING WHY ARE YOU SAYING THAT I AM YELLING)
  • Sore arms (from carrying all the added-on accessories and upgrades the salesman talked you into buying)
  • Vomiting (after swallowing too many hyped advertising claims)
  • Stuttering (if anyone asks you what your credit score is)
  • Malaise: (when you think about reporting corporate malfeasance)
  • Lightheadedness (because when you go to pay your bills you’re looking for them all over the floor and under the couch)
  • Cramps (of your bank account because you never pay your credit card off in full and just keep amassing finance charges)
  • Dizziness (when you try to think about budgeting past two months from now…or two days from now)
  • Blurry Vision (when you try to read a contract’s terms, so you just stop)


CLH is a disease, but it is curable. Anything that can be learned can be unlearned.

Stage 1: Immediately read our Success Stories section. It’s filled with stories of readers who have fought back and won.

Stage 2: Read our post on rocking executive customer service. With this information, you’ll be able to treat customer service dysfunctions that don’t respond to normal customer service channels.

Stage 3: Read The Ultimate Consumerist Guide to fighting back. The tips, tactics and techniques it reveals should cure you of CLH for life.

If treatment falters at any step of the way, email your story to Our trained team of professionals are on call every day.

The door to the cage is open, you just need to walk through it.


Edit Your Comment

  1. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    For immediate relief, take two of these “Just say NO” pills and call us in the morning.

  2. Roy Hobbs says:

    So…Customer Service training at Comcast involves shocking puppies? Explains quite a bit.

  3. I’m actually a little upset with the puppy simile used.

  4. ilovemom says:

    Shouldn’t one of those lightning bolts be “taking it seriously”

  5. outofoffice says:

    The puppy comparison is kind of harsh, but the concept of consumer fatigue is valid, quiet acceptance of rising fuel and consumer prices included.

  6. Snarkysnake says:

    Only some of us have given up.

    The rest of us :

    Check our real time balance online at the bank that we use daily.

    Pay up before the bill is due.We don’t try to pointlessly beat the bank (or credit card company) at their own game.

    Read what we are signing. They make you sign something because they intend to hold you to it later.

    Reject “too good to be true” offers from slick little hustlers that should be in jail.

    Budget. They are betting that you won’t/can’t. If you really want to screw the banks-Budget and stick to it.

    Buy a house and car we can afford.We don’t give a shit what our buddies/girlfriends think. They envy us when we have the courage to live WELL within our means.

    Throw our table lamps at the TV when a commericial tells us we owe ourselve some useless luxury.

    Educate ourselves. (It’s not hard-you’re doing it now)We read and study the financial/consumer news to try to avoid traps,pitfalls and land mines.

    Finally- We revel in our thrift. We take care of ourselves and don’t expect large,impersonal companies to make it all better when we screw up.

    Hell no, we haven’t all given up Fight like hell !

  7. Shadowman615 says:

    Martin Seligman and Steve Maier sound like a couple of world-class pricks, don’t they?


  9. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    Learned helplessness reminds me of grade school.

    The rest of us :

    @Snarkysnake: …and get screwed anyway just like everyone else when the business decides it doesn’t have to uphold their end of the agreement and/or terms of service.

  10. TheNerd says:

    Honestly, I have fought this problem by just not spending money at all, if I can help it. Sure, it’s kind of like sticking my head in the sand, but at least my money is in my pocket, not someone else’s.

  11. Wormfather is Wormfather says:

    As a dog owner I cant get past the idea of the puppy wimpering on the floor. :'(

  12. johnva says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: You might argue that this “learned helplessness” is one of the main things they are trying to teach in the public schools these days.

  13. pal003 says:

    I am upset about the puppies too. Can’t they shock CEOs over and over again to see if they become depressed – instead of puppies?

  14. Snarkysnake says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation:

    See the “educate ourselves” part. When we read here and in other forums how deceptive and venal that some companies can be, (Examples- Chase, BOA, EBay, Comcast) , no matter how tempting their offer looks,we say no.Takes discipline. Takes extra work to find an alternative. But we won’t be defeated ! We’re gonna lose a battle here and there-thats just the way it works. But, we won’t surrender our financial well being to these asswipes without going down fighting.

  15. fleshtone says:

    awesome post, and a perfect analogy. i do, however, have a strong urge to go home a hug my dog.

  16. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    @Snarkysnake: I read the whole thing. The rest of your list is just about budgeting instead of how to not get ripped off so I thought the “educate ourselves” part was about budgeting as well.

  17. chrisjames says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: Don’t lay down and whimper, friend. The door to the cage is open.

  18. RandomHookup says:

    Step 1 is just admitting you have a problem…

  19. smartwatermelon says:

    @heavylee-again, @Shadowman615, @Wormfather is Wormfather, @pal003, @fleshtone:

    Seriously. WTF? Shocking puppies for meaningless psychological experiments?!

    Next thing you know, Consumerist is going to lead posts with pictures of dead cats. Oh wait, they’ve done that too.

  20. LGBTech says:

    I understand that you were attempting to illustrate what learned helplessness is, but really, if you are going to use a scenario that describes inhumane torture of helpless animals, you really have to put a warning at the top of the post. * Don’t read this if you have a heart! *

    Now, thanks to this totally inappropriate content, I will spend the rest of the day trying to get the image of these poor animals out of my head and not thinking at all about how to fight back against corporate greed.

  21. rockasocky says:

    @LGBTech: Now you know why I switched my psychology major. It’s got a cruel history.

    On the other hand, I don’t know if I would call in inappropriate per se, as this is a very famous experiment that established a very famous psychological principal. It’s not the Consumerist’s fault that psychological experiments are cruel.

  22. You forgot the biggest symptom:

    Repeated posting on Consumerist justifying the corporation’s viciously anti-consumer policies and blaming the victim for, you know, breathing.

  23. Angryrider says:

    I don’t believe CLH is a real disease. I’ll regard it as the same as video game addiction and American Idol watching.

    It’s just a lack of courage and some common sense.

  24. @rockasocky: Agree, it’s also the comparison commonly used when discussing the learned helplessness that can occur on welfare. It’s the same psychological principle; it’s just a little more complex in humans.

    Also I have to teach these experiments every semester when I teach medical ethics and we talk about whether “torture for research” is okay. (General classroom consensus: Holy crap, someone actually did that to something?)

  25. wring says:

    my first world problems, let me show you them.

  26. Ben Popken says:

    @Angryrider: Good, because I just made it up.

  27. acasto says:

    I would suspect this is similar to what happens to us guys after we get married.

  28. girly says:

    I mentioned this story in passing to my widely-read sis and she said that the people who conducted the study said they wouldn’t do it in this day and age but that at the time they did it as humanely as they could and that it did yield important information. (to paraphrase) “The Optimistic Child” is the book she read relating to this (as far as she remembers).

  29. girly says:

    Although there is a link here to more information, this article made me, at least, jump to the conclusion that the experiment was recent, when it was actually done around 40 years ago.

    The “Consumer” part would probably be the new addition to “learned helplessness”

  30. bohemian says:

    Just one day’s worth of corporate stupidity included a rogue OD fee on our bank account that the bank admitted they don’t know why it is there, but they can’t do anything until someone is back from vacation.
    Then I check my cell phone bill that has exponentially exploded with about 4x the normal fees and our plan change that was supposed to be the same cost, isn’t.
    This crap makes you feel like just curling up like a shocked puppy when it seems to be a weekly occurance from one provider or another. I am still trying to track down a lost insurance payment to our mortgage bank and a rouge $80 charge on our car insurance that is an admitted mistake they claim to have fixed three times now. This shit just gets old after a while and wastes so much time.

  31. Nick1693 says:

    @Shadowman615: Not really, no.

  32. Nick1693 says:

    @pal003: Can it be televised?

  33. Consumer007 says:

    @LGBTech: Actually, you just proved the effectiveness and appropriateness of the analogy. They are trying to make all of us as helpless as the puppies, and the situation should be just as wrong to us as electrocuting puppies. The ways we are being treated and things we are subjected to everyday are consumer torture. We are living in pretty much a virtual consumer concentration camp, designed to process us until we are numb money-bots, getting nothing of value or only immediate transitory value for our money, and made scared to death to complain or fight back. 2 Examples – story about man who was screwed by BOA, so he puts a sign on his house saying they suck – what happens, they call the police who come harass him, violating his rights. He may keep the sign up, but he and everyone else upset with any bank will now think twice. And wal-mart harassing EVERYONE who leaves the store for receipts and trying to arrest those who rightfully resist, violating the law, but what happens? Everyone just goes along with it.

    They could not have picked a better analogy.

  34. Chols says:

    My best advice is when you call ANY customer service line, hit zero a couple times when they says “For whatever, press 1…”. Usually you get directly to somebody who can help you.

    Now I don’t care if their “menu options have changed…”