Laboratory-induced learned helplessness attenuates approach motivation as indexed by posterior versus frontal theta activity

Samantha J. Reznik, Robin Nusslock*, Narun Pornpattananangkul, Lyn Y. Abramson, James A. Coan, Eddie Harmon-Jones

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Research suggests that midline posterior versus frontal electroencephalographic (EEG) theta activity (PFTA) may reflect a novel neurophysiological index of approach motivation. Elevated PFTA has been associated with approach-related tendencies both at rest and during laboratory tasks designed to enhance approach motivation. PFTA is sensitive to changes in dopamine signaling within the fronto-striatal neural circuit, which is centrally involved in approach motivation, reward processing, and goal-directed behavior. To date, however, no studies have examined PFTA during a laboratory task designed to reduce approach motivation or goal-directed behavior. Considerable animal and human research supports the hypothesis put forth by the learned helplessness theory that exposure to uncontrollable aversive stimuli decreases approach motivation by inducing a state of perceived uncontrollability. Accordingly, the present study examined the effect of perceived uncontrollability (i.e., learned helplessness) on PFTA. EEG data were collected from 74 participants (mean age = 19.21 years; 40 females) exposed to either Controllable (n = 26) or Uncontrollable (n = 25) aversive noise bursts, or a No-Noise Condition (n = 23). In line with prediction, individuals exposed to uncontrollable aversive noise bursts displayed a significant decrease in PFTA, reflecting reduced approach motivation, relative to both individuals exposed to controllable noise bursts or the No-Noise Condition. There was no relationship between perceived uncontrollability and frontal EEG alpha asymmetry, another commonly used neurophysiological index of approach motivation. Results have implications for understanding the neurophysiology of approach motivation and establishing PFTA as a neurophysiological index of approach-related tendencies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)904-916
Number of pages13
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2017


  • Approach motivation
  • Depression
  • Learned helplessness
  • Perceived uncontrollability
  • Posterior versus frontal theta activity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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