“We despair”: Understanding the effect of political despair on personal well-being and actions to promote social change

Author: Lucy H. Bird

Bird, Lucy H., 2023 “We despair”: Understanding the effect of political despair on personal well-being and actions to promote social change, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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In recent years we have witnessed many dramatic social and political changes, from the raging bushfires in Australia, California, and the Amazon; the on-going climate crisis and resistance to climate action; the COVID-19 pandemic; to the Black Lives Matter protests. Such changes can elicit a range of emotional responses. Indeed, during these tumultuous times one emotion that commonly emerged in widespread discussions was despair about the political status-quo (e.g., regarding racial inequality or climate change). I conceptualise this despair as political despair. Anecdotal reports (e.g., through global and social media) appear to suggest that political despair has implications for people’s ongoing willingness to engage in actions to promote social change, as well as their personal well-being. However, there is scant literature on political despair. Therefore, in this thesis, I develop an analysis of political despair.

Across eight studies, this thesis seeks to understand political despair by triangulating qualitative, cross-sectional, and experimental methodologies. I first address the research question: What is political despair? What are is antecedents and outcomes? Firstly, using the qualitative method of Framework Analysis and drawing on intergroup emotion theory, I investigated the antecedent appraisals of political despair (Chapter 2). Secondly, in Chapter 3, I quantitatively tested a theoretical model of political despair that consists of the antecedent appraisals of illegitimacy and intractability (derived from Chapter 2), political despair as a group-based emotion, and the outcome variables of well-being, conventional collective action, and radical collective action. Finally, I address the question: how do we mitigate the negative impacts of political despair? As such, Chapter 4 experimentally explores interventions to mitigate the negative impacts political despair can have on well-being, whilst promoting continued engagement in collective action.

Overall, the findings suggest that despair is associated with perceiving the political status-quo as illegitimate and intractable. Moreover, despair is consistently associated with diminished well-being but also with engaging in actions to bring about social change. Finally, this thesis shows the potential benefits of engaging in pragmatism to promote continued engagement in actions to bring about social change. Namely, this thesis highlights the need to understand but also mitigate experiences of political despair, to ensure people feel well enough to continue engaging in actions to promote social change, so we can help bring about a more equitable and just society for all.

Keywords: political despair, collective action, well-being, climate change, climate action, climate justice, racial inequality, racial justice, burnout, utopian thinking, pragmatism, pragmatic thinking, intergroup emotion theory, group-based emotion, appraisals, conventional action, radical action, stress

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Professor Emma F Thomas