Why Telling Depressed People to “Snap out of It” Won’t Work

Why Telling Depressed People to "Snap out of It" Won't Work

If you’ve never been depressed yourself, it’s difficult to understand why a depressed person can’t just “snap out of it.” You might try to talk them out of it, say encouraging words, or even yell at them. But, you’re likely to find that all of these things won’t make a difference. There’s a classic study, though, that could explain why this is so (and give a hint at what might work).


Learned Helplessness:

The study put 3 groups of dogs in a harnesses. The first group was placed in the harness and then released after a few minutes. The second group was intermittently shocked, which the dogs could end by pressing a lever. The third group was shocked at the same time as the second group. Nothing these dogs did, however, including pressing the lever removed the shocks. So group 2 learned that they could end the shocks by pressing the lever, while the shocks seemed inescapable to group 3.

Next, the dogs were placed in one side of a shuttle box, where they were shocked. Dogs in all of the groups could escape the shocks by simply jumping over a small partition to the other side of the box, where there were no shocks. The dogs in groups 1 and 2 quickly learned to escape the shocks. However, the dogs in group 3 just lied down and whined when they were shocked and made no attempt to escape. The dogs in group 3 had learned that they had no control over the shocks (even though they now did). The same pattern of behavior has also been seen in depressed people.

learned helplessness

The researchers tried a number of things to get the dogs to subsequently escape the shocks.

We took the barrier out of the shuttle box… but [the dog] just lay there. Then I got into the other side of the box and called to the dog, but he just lay there. We made the dogs hungry and dropped Hebrew National Salami on the safe side, but still the dog just lay there. 

Other rewards and threats didn’t work either. The only thing that got the dogs to improve was to physically pick them up, move their legs in the motion of walking and place them in the safe side of the box. This had to be done at least 2 times before the dogs started escaping on their own.



A significant reason why people are depressed is that they have learned that their actions don’t improve their circumstances. No amount of rewards or threats are going to change that. Why bother if nothing you do matters? So, you need to show a depressed person (or yourself) that his/ her actions can make a positive difference. For the dogs, that meant showing them they could escape the shocks. For a person that might mean anything from taking a small freelance job to starting a garden to volunteering. Good luck!



Maier, S. F., M. E. P. Seligman, and R. L. Solomon. “Pavlovian fear conditioning and learned helplessness.” Punishment (1969): 299-343.

Maier, Steven F., and Linda R. Watkins. “Stressor controllability and learned helplessness: the roles of the dorsal raphe nucleus, serotonin, and corticotropin-releasing factor.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 29.4 (2005): 829-841.

Seligman, Martin EP. “Learned helplessness.” Annual review of medicine 23.1 (1972): 407-412.