Jumping Frog - Boiling Frog

Fear and Helplessness in Politics

There are three layers to unfreedom or authoritarian thinking that is sweeping the world today.

1) On the surface…

…we can see populism, xenophobia, racism, extremism, anti-semitism, eroding support for democracy and human rights, and self-appointed strongmen promising illiberal states – and it is tempting (and immediately rewarding) to jump on these symptoms.

Unfreedom can take many shapes, but it would be naïve to believe that the rush towards the usual, instinctive solutions (left- or rightwing populism, religionism, nationalism, protectionism, communitarianism, authoritarianism, socialism etc.) cover vastly different things.

“…we are fascinated by the growth of freedom from powers outside ourselves and are blinded to the fact of inner restraints, compulsions, and fears, which tend to undermine the meaning of the victories freedom has won against its traditional enemies.”

Erich Fromm, 1942

2) The vicious cycle of unfree thinking 

Scholars and columnists have elaborated and written up endless catalogues of what goes wrong when appetite for freedom evaporates, including a few insights about recurring patterns of thinking. These recurring patterns constitute a deeper layer of unfreedom, a vicious cycle of thinking. They are mutually reinforcing and capable of triggering one another.

After cleaning from the ex post ante justifications, these behaviors boil down to two phenomena.

3) At the core

They are triggered by the lack of safety (fear) combined with the absence of control (helplessness).

This post will briefly discuss the role of fear (in all its incarnations, such as generalized anxiety, worry, threats, focus on negative, etc.) and learned helplessness (dependence, seeing no way out, lacking the sense of control, etc.)

On Fear

The absence of the sense safety

„One cannot capitalize on the opportunities of democracy in that chronic state of fear that believes that liberty is a threat to the national cause. To be a democrat means first and foremost not to be afraid: from those with different opinion, language or race, from revolution or conspiracy, from the evil intentions of the enemy, from enemy propaganda, not to fear from being disparaged, and all the other imaginary dangers that become real exactly because we start fearing them.”

István Bibó, 1946

The lack of (the sense of) safety is rightly in the focus of authoritarianism and populism research. But fear can come in many shapes. It can be low level, subtle, prolonged or hardly noticeable. It can be a sudden act of terror, generalized anxiety caused by economic uncertainty, or the stress caused by unpredictability. Prolonged fear will erode the appetite for freedom by crowding out aspirations. When one’s cognitive faculties are overwhelmed by fear one will succumb to unfreedom. This is, for instance, why counter-fearmongering cannot cure populism and unfree thinking. 

It is probably not necessary to recount the role of induced fear in government legitimacy and in populism. Karen Stenner also approaches authoritarianism from this angle. In The Authoritarian Dynamic she describes authoritarianism as intolerance and finds that the basis of authoritarian intolerance is always fear of some sort of societal threat.[1] (Stenner 2005)  The usual suspects are terrorism, crime or pedophilia, but one should keep an eye on existential fear (from loss of economic standing) and the resulting generalized anxiety.

Fear should be discussed in all its incarnations, such as worry, anxiety, terror, uncertainty of the future, and generalized anxiety – a directionless unease and dread that seeks outlet in whatever is on offer. Its source is most likely some economic or security threat – real or perceived – hence the power of a recession or outside attacks to spark authoritarianism.[2]

Frustration and fear is also fertile ground for authoritarian aggression. Fear erodes our sense of solidarity and capacity for empathy, and with it trust (horizontal bonds) in society. It puts our struggle for autonomy and justice on the back burner, it deteriorates decision making (see conditional stupidity) and shortens the time horizon for planning. Finally, and most importantly, fear serves as a justification for immoral behavior, pushing everyone into a downward spiral of distrust fueled by immorality, moral relativism and cynicism. It enables cruelty, oppression and violence.

Better to be afraid than to get scared” sounds the Hungarian proverb, which is usually translated to “Better safe than sorry”, but it is a bit more than that. It states that existing in fear is better than getting suddenly frightened by an unforeseen event. They will surely tell you that they meant “being unprepared for” but they don’t seem to take it that way. Fretting about something we have no control over and cannot possibly prepare for is way too common – and it slowly boils that proverbial frog.

The proverb serves to illustrate how some people tend to associate threat-seeking with caution and wisdom while forgetting to fret is associated with dangerous negligence, or sheer ignorance – in a rather superstitious way. For these people fear can easily become an end in itself and being afraid is like a sacrifice one pays to the gods for keeping them safe – because they no longer can so themselves.

Defenders of this approach often fail to distinguish between preparations for negative scenarios and paralyzed fretting about them. But plenty of ‘smart’, over-cautious people add up to a society in survival mode, too risk-averse to innovate, sticking with the status quo, and dismissing innovation and freedom as a luxury for when it will be safe.


The absence of the sense of control

Fear is not the only component of authoritarian unfreedom. One must also feel helpless in the face of (economic or security) threats in order to trigger unfree thinking. Political fear is a tool deployed exactly to create the sense of helplessness – and the resulting desire to empower someone to do something. To “take back control” – on our behalf. This helplessness can be structural – caused by dependence on a threatening authoritarian state, or dependence on a pampering welfare state – or transitory. It erodes the sense of competence and control. This is why strongmen cannot be beaten by merely promising to take care of things better than he does. Populistic anger cannot subdue without restoring a sense of control.

“…experience with uncontrollable events can lead to the expectation that no responses in one’s own repertoire will control future outcomes. This expectation of no control leads to motivational deficits (lower response initiation and lower persistence), cognitive deficits (inability to perceive existing opportunities to control outcomes), and, in humans, emotional deficits (sadness and lowered self-esteem).”

Hoeksema – Girgus – Seligman 1986:435

The original learned helplessness theory comes from an experiment by Richard L. Solomon, who had trained dogs to induce the sense of helplessness and the resulting inaction. In his famous experiment, dogs were placed in a box divided by half by a chest-high barrier. An electric shock would come on and the dog would have to jump over the barrier to the other side to make the shock go away.

After repeated shocks healthy dogs have learned without difficulty that jumping over the barrier relieves them from unpleasant shocks. Other dogs, however, weren’t so lucky. The other group of dogs was placed in identical boxes, but the other side gave an electric shock as well. Jumping didn’t help, there was nothing they could do to alleviate the shocks.

Dogs that have first been exposed to the second experiment learned not even to try jumping to safety. They stayed put and didn’t even try anymore. The sooner in their development the experiment came, the less likely the dogs became to eventually unlearn the sense of helplessness and discover that jumping over the barrier alleviates the discomfort. [3]

Solomon concluded that it was the uncontrollability of their environment that made the dogs feel helpless, not the discomfort of the shocks. The victim of such conditioning learns to expect the so called response-outcome independence, the feeling that nothing in their power can change the situation. The resulting motivational, cognitive and emotional impairment is widely researched, partly because it is a symptom of depression. (Maier-Seligman 1976) The inability to control one’s environment has repeatedly been shown to create not only anger and frustration but, eventually, deep and often insurmountable depression. In a sense, inducing learned helplessness makes a person lose his aspirations and reduces them to survival mindset.[4]

The original learned helplessness experiments have been performed on dogs, but the psychology of torture is also elaborate on the subject of induced helplessness – on humans.

As the recent findings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence have revealed, the military has reverse engineered the findings about learned helplessness.[5] This, however, is no recent development. The C.I.A.’s “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual” has described various non-violent means to induce this state (then called psychological regression) as early as 1983.

“The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavior level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, to copy with stressful interpersonal relationships, or to cope with repeated frustrations.”

(C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983)

The report set forth the so-called D.D.D method of interrogation, for Debility, Dependency and Dread. By debility they meant physical weakness, while Dread meant intense fear and anxiety. “Many psychologists consider the threat of inducing debility to be more effective than debility itself”, said the manual, and they also meant to ensure the sense of dependency, where the prisoner “is helplessly dependent upon the “questioner” for the satisfaction of all basic needs”.

“Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression. On the other hand, materialization of the fear is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out and his resistance is strengthened.”

(C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983)

But continuous harassment is not optimal for inducing helplessness long-term. After an initial training of response-outcome independence, a system designed to suppress action and resistance is most effective if it only punishes action when the victims try to resist (and spares the rod when the subjects are silent and comply).[6] This way, it can achieve deeper helplessness and compliance than continuous terror. It also teaches the subjects to hold back each other from trying.[7]

Weakness, dependency and fear happen to be not just in the toolkit of the C.I.A., but of any self-respecting authoritarian leader, and to a lesser degree of any leader who wishes to secure re-election and a docile electorate.

Oppressive regimes thrive on this phenomenon. A population reduced to helplessness is more likely to come up with justification of the system and their own place in it, better than any ideology could. No wonder autocrats everywhere take pains to condition their victims that resistance is futile.

And this is is why even a small win against a dictator, even a symbolic retreat of the strongman can energize his opposition by giving hope. It alleviates the sense of helplessness – if not the fear of him. It is empowerment. 

People reduced to helplessness are not necessarily silent and shy. They might as well be loud and belligerent – supporting their strongman and discouraging dissent among their own lot, to defend their world view. Citizens perhaps have more options to act than prisoners (or dogs in labs) do. But it is hard to know what exactly it is they could do, especially in the absence of social capital. Having an intention to resist is meaningless if they cannot hope that others would stand with them. But the option to do nothing is always present.

This is when the justification for one’s own inaction is needed. According to the torture guide:

 “As soon as possible, the “questioner” should provide the subject with the rationalization that he needs for giving in and cooperating. This rationalization is likely to be elementary, an adult version of a childhood excuse such as:

“They made you do it.”

“All the other boys are doing it.”

“You’re really a good boy at heart.”

In other words, the system must provide some excuse for compliance and dropping moral considerations – see conditional morality. Erode the trust is other people (social capital), allow the subject to blame it on the system, while help maintain his illusion of integrity by disassociating his actions from his moral standing or by inducing moral relativism and cynicism.

Hints of depression – such as the belief that bad things happen because of one’s own inadequacy – are not necessarily limited to self-explanations. One can (and does) project them onto society as well, while outwardly insisting that he himself is OK. Statements like “people are hopeless”, or “stupid”, or that “they get the government they deserve” are cases in point – and are discussed under the chapters about trust and victim blaming.


There is a fallacy that people should rise against their governments first, before deserving outside help. It is naturally desirable that they want freedom first and it doesn’t just fall in their hands, but it is also psychologically difficult. It is hard to aspire for a different world when one has no experience of it. And even when he does, it doesn’t take long to relapse into old reflexes. A prolonged recession or (the perception of a) security threat is enough to send ex-authoritarian societies into relapse. To expect that someone (else) do something to fix the situation. When social capital is weak, people ignore the possibilities in cooperation and empower a strong leader instead.

They murmur, “Stalin would have taken care of it,” because they don’t know how to take care of it themselves,

– writes Andrey Arkhangelskiy[8] about contemporary Russians, who are nostalgic for the violent regime only because they never internalized control over their own lives.

But it is not just a problem of former and present dictatorships. Studying the case of former dictatorships is like studying dependence bonding on former hostages – the mechanism is not limited to them, but it is most pronounced there. The malfunctions of unfree thinking are most apparent when transferring from authoritarian oppression to relative freedom – but they also exist in non-authoritarian countries. When fear and helplessness trigger them, non-authoritarian societies relapse into unfreedom just like the post-authoritarian ones, its mechanisms are identical.

During a recession, for instance, the number of things out of control appears to grow – inducing the sense of uncertainty and helplessness. The gradual loss of economic standing leads to an ever increasing level of anxiety about the future and aversion of further losses undermines innovation, risk-taking and progress. Survival-mentality takes over and stifles risk-taking and the desire to grow. This can further undermine the economy by focusing on stagnation and preservation.

This post was part of our series on the slow buildup of authoritarianism, called Jumping Frog – Boiling Frog(Although, given the nature of helplessness, a slowly freezing frog would have been a better metaphor.) The following posts will elaborate on the emerging thinking patterns, such as mistrust, the loss of individual perspective and social capital, and aggression towards the underdog.

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[1] Stenner distinguishes between intolerance of difference, which includes racism, political intolerance (e.g., restriction of free speech), moral intolerance (e.g., homophobia, supporting censorship), and adds punitiveness as the symptoms of this thinking.

[2] As even the enhanced interrogators of Guantanamo were aware that “Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression.” (C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983) But it is not a one-way road. “On the other hand, materialization of the fear is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out and his resistance is strengthened.” Which leaves us with a possible way out of fear.

[3] It affected not just the dogs’ ability to discover and learn (cognitive deficit), it caused motivational deficit as well.

[4] But the effect runs even deeper: many of the animals used in the studies died or became severely ill shortly thereafter.

[5] Seligman’s work turned out to have inspired many, including the intelligence establishment. He has given at least one lecture on learned helplessness to the U.S. Navy in 2002, although with the intention to protect soldiers during torture. It turns out that his techniques, designed to ameliorate the effects of torture, were reverse engineered and transformed from ensuring the resistance of American soldiers to orchestrating the torture of detainees in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Form the findings of the report: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program)

[6][6] To find out exactly what kind of harassment works best to induce the state of motivational deficit and helplessness, we took a look at more recent experiments. Researchers at Waseda University, Tokyo have created a method to induce depression in rats (in order to test antidepressants). They used a robotic rat to terrorize the real rats into depression – indicated by motivational deficit. The robotic rat harasses the rats until they exhibit signs of depression, signaled by a lack of activity. But the exact method of harassment makes a difference. The robotic rats were programmed with three different behaviors: “chasing,” “continuous attack” and “interactive attack.” Each one was designed to induce a different level of stress in rats. Chasing stresses the rats out, while the attacks create an environment of pain and fear. Researchers set the robots loose on two groups of 12 young rats once a day for five days in continuous attack mode. A few weeks later when the rats had matured, their movements were studied in an open field and while the robot chased it. Then, rats in group A were re-exposed to continuous attacks, while group B was exposed to the interactive attack. In the interactive attack, the rat is only attacked if it moves, while the continuous attack means it’s constantly under fire. The intermittent, interactive form of attack proved to be the most stressful, when the rats were only attacked when they tried to move.

[7] The lesson we may take home, however, is the opposite. That prolonged, unprovoked harassment is prone to trigger a fighting spirit and the sense that there is nothing to lose.

[8] The Black Hole Where Russia’s Ethics Should Be by Andrey Arkhangelskiy, Carnegie Moscow, July 2016 http://carnegie.ru/commentary/2016/07/12/black-hole-where-russia-s-ethics-should-be/j2wq

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