The illusion of powerlessness: Why we have more influence than we think

In a LinkedIn post by Jan Rotmans, professor of sustainability in Rotterdam and author of the book Omarm de chaos, I came across the concept of ' illusion of powerlessness'.

Jan Rotmans: “We systematically underestimate our own impact”

With the illusion of powerlessness, Jan Rotmans means that we, as individuals, wrongly think that we have little or no impact on realizing important changes in society.
Rotmans commented on Louise Fresco, who had said in an interview: 'Whoever stops eating meat because of the climate overestimates his impact'.
Rotman's response: “This is a typical example of what I call 'the illusion of powerlessness'. People are persuaded that they have little or no impact and therefore behave accordingly, which leads to passivity. Whereas if we stopped eating meat en masse, that would have a huge impact on the climate. The latest UN climate report indicates that if we really change our behavior, this can lead to a 40-70% reduction in CO2 emissions. So don't fall for it; we systematically underestimate our own impact; if we didn't, the climate transition could go much faster."

The illusion of powerlessness is reminiscent of the fixed mindset

I wholeheartedly agree with Rotmans. He rightly points to the enormous influence we have together when we all take small steps in the right direction.
I see a relationship between the illusion of powerlessness and Carol Dweck's mindset concept. Readers of my website know that Carol Dweck is a world-renowned psychologist who has researched the power of our mindset.
A growth mindset is the belief that, with effective effort, you can get better at the things you would like to get better at. Such a belief helps to face challenges, learn, perform and feel good. A fixed mindset involves the belief that our abilities and skills are barely developable. A fixed mindset leads us to be less focused on taking on challenges and more likely to give up if we don't succeed at difficult things quickly.
Both the fixed mindset and the illusion of powerlessness can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious circle. If we believe we have no influence, we can become passive and stop trying to influence. This can then confirm our belief that we have no influence.

Robert Frank: Our environments are also partly the product of our own behaviour

Rotmans' argument also reminded me of the latest book by economist Robert Frank, Under the influence. In that book, Frank explains that behavior is powerfully transferred from one person to another and then to many more people. Behavior and choices can spread like a kind of virus, benign or malicious.
Frank pleads for us to be well aware of this and to make use of it. Frank's eye-opener is: social influence is a two-way street. Not only are we influenced by our environments, but our environments are also, in part, the product of our own behavior.

Our behaviors can trigger chain reactions

In complex systems, small changes can sometimes have major consequences. Think of the butterfly effect. This one is a metaphor used in 1961 by Edward Lorenz to indicate that the wings of a butterfly in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas months later. Small behaviors can have major consequences downstream in a system because they generate chain reactions. Another well-known metaphor that deals with something similar is the snowball effect.

The invisibility of our influence

But the proverbial butterfly in Brazil has no idea that he or she helped cause a tornado in Texas. In the same way, we often have little awareness of the social influence we ourselves have.
When we make a certain choice or speak out in favor of something, we usually do not know what the effects will be on others. We may not even know who has seen or heard the choice or expression (for example, if we have written an article). What we certainly cannot know is what is going on in the minds of the people who have been observing us. They may never tell us. It may also be that our words or actions only make sense to them over time.
All I'm saying is that much of the social influence we might have is probably invisible to ourselves. This is especially the case if a chain reaction occurs. Perhaps we are partially aware of our influence on the person with whom we have had a conversation. But how that person has influenced others is probably largely or entirely beyond our scope.

We feel small compared to the magnitude of the world's major problems

An important other possible reason for the illusion of powerlessness is the following: Today, we are constantly exposed to negative media coverage of major social issues such as climate change or political instability. This can lead us to feel that we have no influence on these problems.
When I think of my own limited capabilities and compare them to the sheer magnitude of existential problems we face, I can also feel very small.

Let's not cause our own powerlessness

But the illusion of powerlessness is indeed at least partly an illusion, because we can indeed influence important changes in society. Our everyday choices and behaviors can affect others and wider social changes.
Here is a small example where I compare two different choices:

John walks into a gas station to buy a sandwich. He is vegan, but unfortunately, he only sees sandwiches with meat. Disappointed, he leaves the gas pump. Could this person be suffering from the illusion of powerlessness? How would someone who is not affected by this behave differently?
Now that he has left the gas station without saying anything or asking, he has missed the opportunity to exert influence. If he had asked for a vegan sandwich at the counter, he would at least have given the gas station owner the opportunity to consider stocking up on vegan sandwiches. John has now chosen to behave powerlessly.

Of course, we have to keep things in perspective. John will probably not bring about a world shift with his demand for a vegan sandwich. We cannot carry the world on our shoulders and we don't have to because there are many of us. But who knows, John and others can help start a chain reaction.

Examples of how we can easily have influence

There are many examples of invisible influences we can exert. Here are some:
  1. By opting for sustainable products and services, we can contribute to a better environment;
  2. By voting in elections, we can influence political decision-making;
  3. By sharing our opinions with others, we can influence and inspire them;
  4. By joining civil society organizations, we can work with others on important changes in society;
  5. By doing our job well, we can contribute to the success of our organization and, thus, to the economic development of our country;
  6. By being kind to others, we can make their day a little better;
  7. By spending our money consciously, for example, by donating to charities or investing in sustainable projects, we can contribute to a better world.

Conclusion: be more aware of your own ability to influence

In this article, I have explained what the illusion of powerlessness is, what some reasons for this illusion are, and what its adverse effects are. I have also shown that this illusion is, at least partly, an illusion because we do influence important changes in society.
I invite you to believe more in your own ability to make an impact and to consider what small steps you can take to seek that desired influence.