Moving beyond the helplessness

Editor's note: Patricia Sauerbrey Colton is managing partner of Rheingold USA. She can be reached at

Isn't a little dose of relief something we all yearn for? Amidst a relentless onslaught of crises, maintaining a sense of control has proven daunting. The pandemic, climate change, wars, migration, radicalization, inflation and more have left many feeling overwhelmed, uncertain where to start or retreating to the safety of our inner circles. The crisis-laden new norm has numbed us, driving us into autopilot to shield what remains intact of our daily lives. Reality seems to have become “too much” to cope with while experiencing a shrinking radius of impact of personal efforts.

These developments sparked my curiosity about potential beacons of hope: Could there be signs of dynamics that interrupt this vicious cycle? In this article I will share findings from a January study conducted in Germany by Rheingold, a qualitative-psychological market research institute, which shed light on the psychological benefits of reclaiming control.

Despite the varied impact of individual crises worldwide, the psychological underpinning in both the U.S. and Germany is strikingly similar. Both nations are grappling with a mental impasse, craving greater solidarity and connection in an era marked by polarization and retraction into personal bubbles. The political impacts have been radicalization and the solidarization with increasingly extremist ideologies that help reinstate some control in opposition and unity with like-minded people. In Germany, this is reflected through the growing popularity of the right-wing AfD party while in the U.S., far-right positions attract rising numbers of voters.

In November of last year, right-wing extremists, including members of the AfD party, clandestinely convened in Potsdam, Germany, to deliberate a “master plan of remigration,” a scheme to deport asylum seekers, residents with permits and “non-assimilated Germans.” Exposed by investigative journalists in January 2024, this revelation ignited outrage and protests among Germans who saw history repeating itself.

Subsequently, Rheingold conducted in-depth interviews with 26 participants and a quantitative survey of 1,061 Germans, aged 18 and older, to investigate the psychological impacts of these demonstrations. The findings bear a striking resemblance to developments in the U.S.

A stark wake-up call

Germans’ trust in the government has waned, primarily due to incessant disputes within the current tripartite coalition: 70% (top-two boxes) believe this discord has bolstered the AfD party's popularity. The secretive extremist meeting served as a stark wake-up call, rousing many from collective despondency and passivity. Democracy and human dignity became rallying cries, uniting a diverse population in a common cause. Sixty-seven percent viewed the protests as a clarion call for politics as well, with the demonstrations unleashing previously constrained energy, now redirected towards achieving more agency, personal and political unity. Sixty-one percent felt the protests signaled a transformative shift in Germany, with media coverage affirming their impact and the grassroots movement's validity.

Fostering unity in opposition

Participation in a like-minded community provided a political identity distinct from the contentious government, comprised by a tripartite coalition. The demonstrations encouraged dialogue with diverse protestors, bolstering a sense of unity despite differences. A significant portion of participants and supporters aspired for the movement's continuation, hoping it would spotlight additional political grievances. Twenty-nine percent expressed a desire for further protests against radical right ideologies and in defense of democracy. However, some of the empowering and comforting effects of the protests dissipated upon returning to the routine crisis-laden life. The study revealed a palpable desire for a political echo: "Our protests have eased the government's burden; now, it's their turn to act." The societal implications of the protests left Germans divided between hope and concern: 62% fully or mostly agreed that the protests facilitated societal dialogue, whereas 47% believed they exacerbated societal divisions.

Reassess their flirtation

The protests’ impact on AfD sympathizers varied with their level of party affiliation. 

Undecided voters, exploring conservative to right-wing ideologies, felt compelled to reassess their flirtation with the AfD, hesitant to sever ties with democratic centrism. They were deterred by ideologies they deemed excessively radical, yet were not entirely disillusioned with the AfD, hoping for a moderation of its more radical positions.

Prospective AfD voters, intending to protest the current government's policies, felt alienated by the anti-AfD sentiment of the protests, viewing it as a personal affront. Yet they remained hopeful of sending a warning message to the government by supporting the AfD and inciting unavoidable societal discord. 

Convinced AfD voters remained skeptical of the protests evolving into a significant movement, interpreting media coverage as evidence of media collusion. Feeling marginalized and overlooked in their daily struggles, they identified their adversaries within the established political parties, aiming to confront a seemingly aloof elite.

Willingness to engage

The protests underscored the desire for deeper social connections among democracy advocates and showcased a collective willingness to engage actively. Germans sought recognition from the government and support for their movement, yearning for a direct acknowledgment of current challenges and an inclusive approach to problem-solving. They desired not mere placation but leadership that courageously identifies issues and propels collective action. The interviewed Germans emphasized the potential for the government to model greater cohesion and more effective conflict resolution within the coalition, while also recognizing the critical role of politics in fostering a civil discourse that embraces diverse viewpoints, thereby averting further division.

Broader contexts

The outlined study results directly apply to the referenced German protest context but also, given the parallels with the societal climate in the U.S., provide a thought-provoking example to extrapolate principles and hypotheses applicable to broader contexts of adversity.

  • The persistent crises have nudged us towards a state of learned helplessness and the associated passivity and resignation. This psychological condition is marked by the belief that one has no control over the outcomes of their actions due to repeated exposure to uncontrollable negative events or prolonged periods of stress, failure or trauma. Sound familiar? To be at the mercy of the various crises has made us generalize our lack of control, especially on a larger scale beyond our personal bubbles.
  • Our threshold for action has risen. Circumstances that might have previously spurred us to voice our concerns now seem insurmountable, often preemptively dismissed as futile efforts. We are challenged to see an issue at hand while being overwhelmed by the myriad problems it may be embedded in. In Germany, the extremist ideologies of the AfD were known well before the protests yet it took a provocative reminder of historical patterns to catalyze action.
  • The referenced protests show some resemblance with the first steps out of a depression. Early signs of recovery from a depression are typically renewed interest in connecting, getting moving and finding meaning in everyday activities, resulting in stepwise successes and a heightened sense of control. The protests appear to have sparked a shift in mind-set, from passive acceptance to recognizing opportunities for empowerment and the emotional rewards of active participation. This shift not only lowered the threshold for mobilization but also demonstrated that collective action can initiate a domino effect, inspiring movements such as Black Lives Matter.
  • With the rise of the threshold to protest comes the explosivity of the bottled-up, multilayered and ongoing frustration. Once this energy is released, peaceful protest can easily flip into outbursts of antagonism and violence, as witnessed around some of the demonstrations accompanying the war in Gaza.
  • Ideally, taking action fosters a dual sense of unity in purpose and an appreciation for diversity within the collective, illustrating that differences among participants can coexist with a shared human experience. This recognition can serve as a potent force for inclusivity and the celebration of diversity.
  • Protests may engage undecided or moderate individuals and encourage reassessment of extreme positions. On the other hand, protests may amplify the challenge of reaching those deeply entrenched in their views. This underscores the importance of nuanced approaches in political discourse and activism, aiming to engage rather than alienate and ideally opening doors for civil discourse modeled by politicians. 
  • Engaged groups, cognizant of their influence, aspire to see their advocacy inspire others in the short term, as exemplified by movements like Fridays for Future. Protests offer a platform for political engagement, signaling a deep desire for acknowledgment and participation in democratic processes, leveling the field across socioeconomic statuses.
  • The aspiration to effect foundational, long-term change carries the risk of disappointment. Initial steps out of learned helplessness might revert to disillusionment without sustained impact. However, patience and repeated positive reinforcement of the connection between action and impact breaks the instilled pattern and can lead to an awakening sense of reclaimed agency, as expressed in the example through the longing for the reward of being seen and inspiring change.
  • The helplessness state and the increased threshold to take action need significant counterbalancing by feelings of empowerment, unification, celebration of diversity and inspiration of others. While activism may temporarily disrupt the cycle of learned helplessness, sustaining this momentum requires repeated catalysts to inspire broader, more frequent and more inclusive movements that cannot be ignored by the government. This could not only trigger a temporary uptick in relief but prompt longer-term confidence in a more positive future.

I extend my gratitude to my German colleagues, Birgit Langebartels, client director, and Stephan Grünewald, Rheingold founder and managing partner, who spearheaded the study. The study’s insights have not only illuminated the power of collective action in Germany but also offered valuable lessons for navigating the complexities of our current global landscape.