The Psychology of Political Helplessness


Summary. Even small daily exposures to oppressive structures of economic and political/social environments influence people’s psychological internalization of observed superiority and inferiority. Conforming behavior provides the necessary practice to develop the tendency to obey the “unavoidable” orders of oppressors in a learned “helpless” manner. The more hierarchical a political system, the more is helplessness learned with the result of uncritical and fearful behavior that is undermining democratic processes. The creation of awareness about existing power differentials and their detrimental effects is needed as the basis to enable an individual and collective path towards action against personal and social injustices.

The response of individuals not to respond to stress can be a learned behavior reflecting experience in which stressful situations have been perceived as uncontrollable [1]. If people have learned that their actions do not positively influence the outcome, they develop desperate feelings and related beliefs about the future, a hopelessness that often is also comforted through substance misuse [2].

The lack of, for example, economic, social, and democratic possibilities for groups of relative powerlessness withholds their expression and participation [3]. Research shows that lower socioeconomic status is indeed creating increased helplessness [4]. Even small daily exposures to oppressive structures of economic and political environments influence people’s psychological internalization of observed superiority and inferiority. As oppressors legitimize, so do oppressed start to accept unfortunate situations as unavoidable world laws in which everyone gets what he or she justly deserves [3].

Obedience in authoritarian regimes, without excusing terror and criminal conduct (we do argue in other places that we always have a choice), as an extreme but suitable example, can occur because individuals learned to obey authorities already before in other situations. Conformity of any sort in any domain, therefore, provides the required practice to develop a strong tendency to helplessly obey the “uncontrollable” orders of the instructor [5]. Dominant figures of high prestige are especially strongly modeled by its imitators [6].

Political passivity can be explained by a vicious cycle that leads from an unresponsive government to poor trust, low efficacy, and finally to an inactive civil society. Voters or organizational members’ perception of efficacy is external in the form of government performance, and in internal beliefs of one’s own political capacity [7]. The more hierarchical and despotic a political system is, the more oppression occurs that is causing the underlings to learn helplessness. As a result, an uncritical and fearful behavior is undermining the democratic process [8]. A measure of perceived individual levels of control is the so-called locus of control. High internal locus of control attributes results to individuals’ action, whereas external locus of control is describing situations out of the personal zone of influence [9].

Mostly diagnosed in girls in refugee situations with uncontrollable open refugee status decisions, the pervasive refusal syndrome is a maladaptive parallel development of learned helplessness as expressed by, e.g., the refusal to care for oneself and the withdrawal from any social contacts and eating. Also, a factor for this life-threatening disease is often families with an abusive background, typically where a daughter conforms to the mother’s fear of losing her daughter, why it is also called “lethal mothering” [10].

In conclusion, as hope is the hinge between the present and the future, moral behavior is depending on it [2]. The multi-dimensional problematic of (political) helplessness may be best addressed through a process of illumination that is creating awareness about existing power differentials and their detrimental effects, which eventually will lead to motivations for taking action against personal and social injustices [3].

Photo credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969 (


[1] Seligman, M. E., & Weiss, J. M. (1980). Coping behavior: Learned helplessness, physiological change and learned inactivity. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 18(5), 459-512. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(80)90011-X

[2] Smith, M. B. (1983). Hope and despair: Keys to the socio-psychodynamics of youth. American Journal Of Orthopsychiatry, 53(3), 388-399. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1983.tb03382.x

[3] Prilleltensky, Isaac a., & Gonick, Lev a. (1996). Polities Change, Oppression Remains: On the Psychology and Politics of Oppression. Political Psychology, (1), 127. doi:10.2307/3791946

[4] Oscar, G., & Ruben, A. (2012). Psicología y pobreza: Papel del locus de control, la autoeficacia y la indefensión aprendida / Psychology and poverty: Influence of locus of control, self-efficacy and learned helplessness / Psicologia e pobreza: o papel do lócus de controle, a autoeficiência e a indefensào aprendida. Avances En Psicología Latinoamericana, (2), 381.

[5] Neera K., B. (2009). The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits. The Journal Of Ethics, (2/3), 257. doi:10.1007/s10892-009-9052-4

[6] Chambers, S., & Hammonds, F. (2014). Vicariously Learned Helplessness: The Role of Perceived Dominance and Prestige of a Model. Journal Of General Psychology, 141(3), 280-295.

[7] THE VICIOUS CIRCLE Does disappointment with political authorities contribute to political passivity in Latvia?. (2014). EUROPEAN SOCIETIES, 16(4), 615-637.

[8] Bloom, S. L., & Farragher, B. (2010). Authoritarianism, Disempowerment, and Learned

[9] Huebner, R. B., & Lipsey, M. W. (1981). The Relationship of Three Measures of Locus of Control to Environment Activism. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 2(1), 45-58.

[10] Hacking, I. (2010). Pathological Withdrawl of Refugee Children Seeking Asylum in Sweden. Studies In History And Philosophy Of Biological And Biomedical Sciences, 41C(4),

About mathias sager

Thinking and writing for happiness, painting colorfully, and enabling personal growth for all. Fostering co-operative and humanitarian principles, economic and social equality, as well as environmental sustainability. Using broad international experience and progressive, egalitarian and global outlook to promote care for the next generation.
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13 Responses to The Psychology of Political Helplessness

  1. Richard Keller says:

    Hello Mathias,
    I’d like to reprint this one (learned helplessness) on my blog and also on a local sharing site, Indymedia. Thanks,
    Richard Keller
    Wellington, New Zealand

    • mathias sager says:

      Hello Richard. I’m happy if this is useful to you and the community interested in the topic. Thanks for sharing it. All the best, Mathias

  2. Obviously, in so-called Western societies, eliminating Capitalism as the state-sponsored belief system would help immensely. This system creates economic inequality, increases it and adds a stigma to lower economic status – not even just to those in poverty, but to those considered below average economically.

    • mathias sager says:

      You’re right, thanks for adding that. The system is indeed reinforcing itself. Ideally, from a capitalist system’s perspective, people are as resourceless and passive as possible within the range of not starting to revolt. The ideal citizen is preferably a dependent commercial consumer and not an independent creator of his/her destiny by claiming his stake in the world’s power and wealth that is protected by a small “elite.”

  3. abusid says:

    Mathias sager your piece of writing is indeed serious and brilliant is your exposition.

  4. Well done, mathias. I really think you’d like some of my blog posts as well; e.g., three on SHRUGS (Super Hyper REALLY Ultra Greedy Snots) or “Too Much!” about how companies keep pushing people to produce more. On a more positive note, I’m trying to capture best practices in collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork right now in a pattern language.

    • mathias sager says:

      Thank you very much! You have a fascinating blog, and I’m interested in your field of “Human-Computer Interaction.” I have founded the Platform Cooperativism Consortium in Japan (PCJ), which promotes co-operative governance in digital businesses, including technology designed for equality (please see link below). I hope it is OK to follow up with you on that sometime soon, let’s stay connected and all the best.

  5. Excellent perspective and viewpoints. Thank you for sharing.

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