The Squeaky Wheel

How to protect your psychological health, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem.

Do Voters Have 'Complaining Learned Helplessness'?

Why voters might not show up at the polls

Dissatisfaction with our elected officials is at an all-time high. In recent years polls have indicated only 11% of Americans have faith in Congress while 45% of Americans favor replacing them by picking random names out of the phone book. Not surprisingly, complaining about government has become a new favorite pastime. But will all this complaining lead to a larger voter turnout or will it amount to little more than a national exercise in pointless venting?

Psychologically speaking, when something frustrates us so much we can't stop complaining about it, are we also more likely to do something and take action? To answer this question we first need a better understanding of our complaining psychology.

The Psychology of Complaining
When we feel dissatisfied or frustrated by something we respond by engaging in an exclusively human behavior-we complain. We complain about things large and small and do so with great frequency. This should surprise no one. What is surprising is that although we all invest prodigious amounts of time complaining-almost all of it is wasted. We do practically nothing to resolve our complaints. Bucket-loads of studies back this up, especially in the consumer domain. For example, when we find certain purchases or services faulty or dissatisfying we all vent our frustration: on average, we complain to 8-16 friends and acquaintances. But the vast majority of us don't take action by voicing our complaint to the merchant responsible for the faulty product or service! A stunning 95% of us fail to complain effectively in such situations-only 5% of us complain successfully enough to resolve the issue. 

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Why do we suffer from such severe complaining impotence? We typically justify our flaccid responses in one of two ways:
1. We tell ourselves complaining requires too much time and effort and ultimately will not help.
2. We tell ourselves the company in question doesn't care about us.

Such justifications might sound somewhat reasonable but in fact while we avoid voicing our complaint to the company in question, we spend a lot of time and effort complaining to the people who can do nothing about the problem.

Why are we lavishing our complaints on practically anything that moves yet refusing to voice them even once to those who can actually resolve them? The answer is we seem to have acquired a wicked case of learned helplessness regarding complaints.

"Complaining Learned Helplessness"
Learned helplessness is a psychological state that describes what happens when people believe they have no control over their environment. When we become convinced our actions will not have the impact we desire, we cease our efforts and become passive and helpless. If we believe that calling a customer service hotline will involve endless automated menus, long hold times and unhelpful representatives, we simply won't make the call. True, our new cable box will still malfunction when we least want it to but at least we've successfully avoided an unpleasant, frustrating and certain to be pointless hour on the phone with the cable company.

Our "complaining learned helplessness" is often based solely on mistaken beliefs, not on facts. Indeed, companies invest billions trying to improve their customer service and while some mishaps occur, many such calls are often quick, easy and productive. But our self-defeating prophecies lead us to feel powerless when in reality we are not.

Can learned helplessness also impact our political complaints and behaviors? Some political pundits have voiced the expectation that our frustration and dissatisfaction should drive more voters than usual to the poll, but the pundits may be overlooking or underestimating the insidious power of learned helplessness.

Will frustration with our elected officials translate into high voter turn-out on Election Day or will many registered voters stay home and complain to their friends instead?

"Complaining Learned Helplessness" in Our Voting Psychology

The two main reasons we fail to complain as consumers were that doing so won't help get us the result we want and that companies don't care about us anyway. A Rasmussen poll found that 81% of the voting public believes politicians do not keep their campaign promises. In other words, even if we vote for the person who represents our views, we're unlikely to get the changes we want. An equally ominous Rasmussen poll found that only 28% of likely voters think members of Congress actually care about what they think. Lastly, a Newsweek poll found that fed-up as we may be; angry voters are no more likely to vote this year than non-angry voters.

Will American voters succumb to "complaining learned helplessness," stay home and complain to friends and colleagues instead of casting ballots? Or will the desire to have an impact on our environments, a sense of hopefulness and the call of civic-duty prevail?

For more about complaining learned helplessness, check out The Squeaky Wheel.

Copyright Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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