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Apathy Syndrome: Here’s How We’re Trained Not to Care About Politics

With today’s news cycle, it’s hard to avoid constant information about politics — whether it be elections, unrest, campaigns, or impeachment. Still, it seems some people are able to simply switch off their concern for political matters.

But a new study suggests that hitting the off switch isn’t so simple. In fact, apathy toward politics is a process involving everything from emotions to culture, according to Ph.D. candidate Anna Zhelnina (The Graduate Center, CUNY) in her new study, “The Apathy Syndrome: How We Are Trained Not to Care About Politics.”  The study was published in the Oxford Academic journal Social Problems.

“Apathy is produced in public situations as a response to feeling powerless in the face of political realities one cannot control; it is a collective, conversational process,” Zhelnina wrote.

Zhelnina drew from dozens of in-depth interviews with young Russians during and after the anti-regime protests of 2011 and 2012, in which tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest election fraud. The demonstrations marked the largest protest rally in Russia since 1991. Although this research focuses on Russia, Zhelnina notes that “the issue of political apathy and declining civic participation is relevant for nations worldwide.”

She argues in her research that emotions and cultural norms “of feeling and expression” play a part in producing political apathy. Thus, she identifies the apathy syndrome, “a combination of emotional mechanisms and cultural norms that produce political apathy.”

As far as cultural norms, Zhelnina notes the “apolitical” habits that exist within many Russian families — “ people learn to think of politics as a ‘dirty thing,’ “ she writes. Notions of what is appropriate and what emotions should be expressed also play a part in whether people are motivated to engage in political efforts. With the negative emotions associated with driving political action — like outrage and disgust — suppressed, it becomes easier to dissociate from what’s going on in the world.

She identifies “social mistrust” as discouraging the belief that collective action could be effective and promote change.

The safety of one’s private life also encourages the apathy syndrome, according to Zhelnina. While public life and politics could be disturbing and risky, one’s private life is full of safety and comfortability.

“The private domain becomes a refuge, a sphere of control, where the positive self can be maintained,” she writes. “Feeling safe in this domain requires dissociation: cutting linkages to other social groups and identities, marking social and political problems not worthy of personal attention.”

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Anna Zhelnina (Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology) | Profile 1

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The Graduate Center