Robb Willer: The Powerlessness Paradox

Researchers find that feeling powerless can lead people to support systems that disadvantage them.


The sense of dependency is precisely what propels those who feel powerless to see the status quo as legitimate. “The logic behind this,” van der Toorn explains, “is that people who feel powerless want to feel that the world makes sense and that their disadvantage is not unfair. Therefore, they legitimate the inequality that they don’t benefit from.”

This effect can explain why many protest movements have a hard time gaining traction, why members of disadvantaged groups might endorse politicians who do not advocate for their interests, and even why some people stay in abusive relationships. Not only do many people who feel helpless avoid changes that could help them, but they profess that things are actually pretty good already.

“This may be one reason why dictators work not only to seize power, but also to make citizens feel powerless,” Willer says. “Where people feel powerless, they are less likely to resist.”

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