Overcoming a National Culture of Learned Helplessness

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Groups, an aggregation of individuals, can develop a culture of learned helplessness resulting in depression and apathy towards eliminating negative stimuli. The modern economy, based on innovation and intellectual capital requires a willingness to take risks to step into the unknown. The willingness to take risks requires optimism and therefore a nation with a "victim culture" can't compete in the new economy. Croatia, due to a long history of communist oppression has develop a victim culture of learned helplessness and someone will need to develop a national therapy to reinvigorate national optimism in Croatia. Before we can start making Big Hairy Audacious Goals, we need to take some baby steps.


There was an interesting article in the Croatian press recently "Careful who you work with". While many Croats would like to go to Ireland to earn a living, Paul O'Grady came to Croatia in 2000, stayed and started a number of businesses. Paul says that in Ireland the standard of living is higher but in Croatia the quality of life is higher. So why do so many young Croats want to leave Croatia?

Let's investigate a bit.

About You

How do you perceive yourself and your life?

Do you as an individual have feelings of:
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Incompetence
  • Loneliness
  • Powerlessness
  • Low self-esteem

Does your group of friends share these feelings?

Do you have the perception that:
  • Good things, good luck, rarely happen to you.
  • Outcomes are not depend on my actions.
  • Murphy’s Law defines my life — if anything can go wrong, it will.
  • This is the way it has always been and the way it always will be.

When you look at the problems facing your neighbourhood, city and nation do you:

  • Have a tendency to give up easily when faced with a problem
  • Have a tendency to be passive when action is required
  • Are prone to procrastination
  • Have a reduced ability to solve problems
  • Believe there is no way to control things that will happen in the future
  • Believe things will turn out bad no matter what action is taken
  • Feel that at election time your vote does not matter

Do you feel like a victim in most circumstances and at the mercy of external circumstances convinced that the odds are stacked against you no matter what you do?

If you feel like these criteria describe how you feel, you might be a victim of the existential threat of learned helplessness!

Martin Seligman, developer of the "learned helplessness" concept called these sort of attitudes a person’s explanatory style, which is a way that people explain or interpret events and experiences. People develop their explanatory style in childhood and adolescence is based on how the person views himself, do they consider themselves to be valuable or worthless, hopeful or hopeless and do they deserve good things to happen.

Explanatory style is related to attribution theory which are the principles by which a person interpret the causes of another person's behavior The causes can be internal and dispositional or external and situational.

Extra: How does the Broken Window Theory mix with group learned helplessness?

My question for consideration is a three part one.
A. Can a group of suffer from a culture of "learned helplessness"
B. Do you think that learned helplessness is the root cause of Croatia's national social depression
C. How do we move from learned helplessness to learned optimism?

Group Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness refers to a mental state where people feel completely powerless to improve their own situation in life. This means that they become unwilling to take action to improve a situation because they have already decided that it will not make much difference.

We understand the concept of learned helplessness on the level of individuals but I believe that a nation can also suffer from learned helplessness (creating a shared culture of despair). Group learned helplessness has been observed in companies with poor leadership and organizational structures so extrapolating to larger groups of people is not too difficult.

When many people experiencing the same environmental factors feel powerless with no control over their destiny, they can develop an institutionalized social depression which can turn into a "victim culture". Negative thinking disrupts normal psychological development, leads to emotional disturbances and results in negative outcomes that accelerate a downward emotional spiral of the nation.


Learned helplessness is quite common in abusive relationships. The abused individual believes that they are powerless to change their lives and after a while, rather than fight the abuse, they get depressed and apathetic. The Croatian people have been in an abusive relationship for the last 70 years. First, 50 years after WW2 under the tyranny of communism and now the last 20 years under the tyranny of a corrupt ruling elite clique.

The authoritarians that want power know how to make a nation helpless. The Croatian people have little control over their destiny in Croatia. The political elite is quite adept at using the power of the state for its own goals but the ordinary people are powerless. People have found two ways of gaining some control over their destiny; either leaving Croatia or joining one of the two major political parties and trying to take advantage of political favouritism to gain some advantage.

The Croatian government (the political elite clique) is like a soap opera that people watch and talk about (whine and complain) but no one is willing to take any action to change the channel. Voter apathy is growing worse with every election.

Elections are brief moments of hope, but the people have been fooled so often that more often than not people vote against something rather than for something. The people are depressed and anxious. Voter apathy is increasing at every election. The situation in Croatia is so bad that many people think that “only God can save us” and so they wait for God to do something.

Ask yourself, why do they want you to be helpless?

From Sun Tzu, The Art of War

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”
“Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”

Comparing Croatia and Canada

In Canada and the US, we see natural optimism. There is a significant entrepreneurial spirit and people are willing to take risks to do something with new ideas. People are willing to take initiative to do something. There is possibility for success based on personal actions and so there is hope.

How does learned optimism compare with learned helplessness?

In Canada, a nation with positive attitudes and hope, when a friend talks about an idea the first thing his friends will do is start brainstorming ideas about how to make the original idea better and how to bring it to life.

In Croatia, a nation of negative attitudes, helpless victims and little hope, the natural instinct for friends is to find reasons why the idea will fail. People actually believe they are doing their friend a favor by telling them not to waste their time and resources on a futile venture.

How helpless are the Croats? So many of them want to come to Canada or the USA because these are good and successful nations (value sets) but none of them want to bring a bit of Canada to Croatia. The common excuse is "those ideas will not work here". Huh? Good ideas and proper values will work anywhere. Human psychology is the same no matter where we are in the world - we all have the same "firmware" that motivates us.

A Glimmer of Hope

There is a sign of hope. People have discovered a political loophole, a small bit of control over their destiny through the power of national referendums. The Croatian people have a constitutional right to demand a referendum but it took 20 years for the people to call for one.

Even though Croatia has an absurdly high hurdle to jump, collection of signatures from 10% of the population in 14 days (compare this to other developed nations) but the people have jumped that hurdle and succeeded.

The people have found one small way to control their destiny - but now the government is seeking ways to close this loophole and take away a bit of control and hope from the people.

To be a virtuous person is to display, by acts of will, all or at least most of the six ubiquitous virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.
- Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism

America is what it is because of the culture of earned success
Croatia is what it is because of a culture of learned helplessness
Croatia needs to develop some optimism

The willingness to take risks requires hopefulness. This mindset change from helplessness negativity and pessimism will benefit people in politics and in business helping bring the Croatian people into the new business age where innovative ideas are intellectual capital and value (and success) come from successful risk taking and execution on the innovative ideas.

To create value in the new economy we must be willing to challenge the old ways of doing things and develop new and better ways. Innovation, the unknown, is full of risks that we must be willing to take. We need to have optimism and hope for that.

The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.
- Martin Seligman

Optimism Action Plan

Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.
- Martin Seligman

What is learned can also be unlearned. How do we develop an action plan to move from learned helplessness to learned hopefulness and helpfulness? Do we have any psychologists and sociologists here that can develop a therapy to cure the Croatian people of this horrible national affliction?

Those who have learned not to be helpless cannot be taught to be helpless again.

Who has ideas for an action plan to reinvigorate hopefulness in the Croatian people?
How do we empower a nation so that it can take control of its destiny?

“You have to believe in yourself. ”
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
“If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things.”
― Sun Tzu

Final thought - if at the election you think that your vote is unimportant and you don't want to vote ask yourself - why do “they” work so hard to stop you from voting?

Updated 19th-November-2014 at 06:42 PM by Željko Zidarić

Željko Zidarić


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    'U Hrvatskoj pazi s kim posluješ'

    Izvor: tportal.hr ,
    Autor: Krešimir Dujmović

    Hrvati bi masovno u Irsku, a jedan Irac masivno uspijeva u Hrvatskoj. A uspijevaju mu i masline. Paul je prožvakao Hrvatsku temeljitije od solidnog broja domaćih i, jasno, usvojio originalni set vještina za preživljavanje na Balkanu. Jedna od njih zove se 'uvijek budno pazi s kim posluješ ovdje'
    Lijepa naša vaša

    Da li arhitekt, novinar, a možda i učitelj plesa ili promotor istarskog ekstra djevičanskog maslinovog ulja? Paul O'Grady radi sto stvari u Hrvatskoj, nešto što prilično kontrira slici svijeta domaće mladeži koja se namjerila na emigraciju u Irsku, a svodi se na to da kod nas jednostavno nema posla. Očito da ga ima na pretek, no možda je za shvaćanje istoga potrebno biti Irac.

    'Iskustvo Hrvatske započeo sam još 2000. Godine kada sam došao kao student na razmjenu u Osijek. Odlično sam se proveo. Otkrio sam da ljudi nemaju puno novca, ali su znali kvalitetno živjeti', prisjeća se Paul i odmah uspoređuje dvije zemlje: 'U Irskoj je puno viši standard života, ali u Hrvatskoj je veća kvaliteta. Preciznije, standard kao obrazovanje, rad, napredovanje nasuprot kvaliteti kao umijeću uživanja u životu.' U Irskoj je bio arhitekt, ganjao je veliku lovu u doba kada je otok djeteline prolazio ekonomsku renesansu. No, za poželjeti doći živjeti kod nas novac nekako ne smije biti previsoko na listi priorieta. Paul je tražio kreativnost, nova znanja i drugačije vrijednosti, kaže. I Hrvatska je naprosto savršen poligon za to.

    Zaposlio se kao instruktor engleskog, pa počeo raditi na Hrvatskom radiju, potom kao arhitekt u jednom zagrebačkom arhitektonskom birou. Otvorio je školu irskog plesa, svirao irsku glazbu po zagrebačkim barovima, e da bi danas, između tuceta stvari koje paralelno radi, između ostalog i obiteljski posao proizvodnje maslinovog ulja, vodio i radionice za buduće biznismene: 'Ogromna je frustracija u vezi poslovanja u Hrvatskoj. Najveći problem je što se ljudi ne drže svoje riječi. Ne drže se propisanih rokova niti obećane kvalitete. Svi žele brzu zaradu i neki automehaničar, na primjer, ne razumije da ako me jednom prevati da mu više nikada neću ponovno doći. '

    'U Hrvatskoj svi kupuju i prodaju nešto, razvijena je ekonomija cjenkanja. I kada mi kažu da ovdje nema poduzetničkog duha, ne slažem se. Vidio sam to u nebrojeno slučajeva, kada mladim ljudima daš priliku i podršku, sjajni su', reći će Paul i požaliti nad činjenicom da slika biznismena u Hrvatskoj ima negativnu konotaciju. U programu svojih poslovnih radionica za mlade obilazi srednje škole. Što im govori?: 'Ispričam im kako je to kada počneš od nule. Kada stigneš u novu sredinu doslovce s vrećicom na ramenu. Ne znaš niti jezik, niti zemlju, nemaš nikakav posao. To je upravo bila moja situacija kada sam došao živjeti u Hrvatsku.'