Malcolm Gladwell wrote an extraordinary piece in the New Yorker on Learned Helplessness a couple of years ago, and it remains one of his most important articles. What is Learned Helplessness? It’s the exaggerated feeling of lack of control, of enormous danger, of inability to respond to danger, that comes from repeated exposure to actual or apparent threats.

It’s the syndrome that afflicts battered spouses and children, and citizens who have given up on the apparent inadequacy of law enforcement and, armed to the teeth with weapons, taken the law into their own hands. It’s what causes people to buy SUVs in the fear-driven and utterly mistaken idea that they will be in less peril on the road in them than they would be in smaller vehicles. It’s what causes us to slaughter tens of millions of farmed, domestic and wild animals in the hysterical belief that that’s the most sensible way to reduce exposure to poultry flu and BSE. It’s what caused the US to be able to divert trillions of dollars from needed social programs to the lunatic extravagance and cruel, arbitrary and idiotic policies of ‘homeland security’, sold as somehow making people’s lives ‘safer’. The war in Iraq was sold on the same fraudulent basis. Firestone was almost bankrupted when a few faulty tires resulted in deaths and spread panic among buyers, despite data showing that tires as a whole are remarkably safe and Firestone’s tires were no worse than most competitors’.

While conservatives are especially prone to this syndrome (it fits better with their crime-obsessed worldview), liberals are far from immune to it. It’s easy to whip up by those with a political agenda or ulterior commercial motives, because most of us are unable to put risks, dangers and fears in proper perspective, especially when they hit close to home.

So what can we do to avoid this syndrome, and to unlearn helplessness if we’re already afflicted with it?

Well, first, we can get our facts straight. Gladwell’s article shows data, taken from reliable and extensive studies, that show that you’re safer off in a convertible than an SUV, for example. If we think the best way to prepare for and handle an emergency is to wait helplessly for the authorities to look after it and tells us what to do, we should read about FEMA’s track record and compare it to that of Central American countries like El Salvador whose preparedness is local and community-based. Data on rare/unlikely but devastating and uncontrollable catastrophes (like being deliberately murdered by a stranger) can be easy to misinterpret, and must be compared to data on far more common, less disastrous and preventable occurrences (like dying from common influenza, or an accident on the job). Only by comparing risks objectively can perspective be achieved and learned helplessness over the uncontrollable averted.

Critical Life Skills mindmap

Secondly, we can empower ourselves to be less helpless. Get rid of debts that make you paranoid about job loss, illness or injury. Learn to live on a smaller salary (the average low six-figure income earner would be in financial crisis within a month if that income suddenly ceased). Become less dependent on the electrical grid and on heavily-subsidized oil and food prices. Take charge of your own health so you’re not dependent on your doctor for every little thing that happens (and so that fewer little things do happen). Build up your critical technical and social and thinking skills (see the mindmap above), and build reciprocal relationships with handy friends and neighbours, so you don’t have to run to the yellow pages or the store every time something breaks down, wears out or falls apart. Buy fewer and more durable things, so they don’t break down as often. Learn to ‘make your own’. Have fewer possessions that need huge amounts of space and maintenance. In general, make yourself more self-sufficient and resilient and less dependent on others and on infrastructure that can break or break down.

Third, we can learn how the world really works. Don’t believe those who tell you that someone is in control, or should be in control. Don’t believe those who tell you crime and risks and danger are rampant, because in most places they aren’t, in where they are the perpetrators are usually well-known to the victims. Involve yourself in the political process enough to realize that it doesn’t take much to get the attention of those in power, and that those in power don’t have much power anyway. The more you know about the systems that govern much of our lives, the more you will realize that it’s less harmful than you feared and less in control (especially in a crisis) than you might hope. Learn especially about the power of communities working in common cause.

By doing these things, you change how you see the world in two important and positive ways: You fear the unknown and uncontrollable less, because you realize how unlikely it is. And you increase your control over what is controllable, which, for the most part, is things that are far more likely to occur.