Germany on the run from reality

Two-thirds of the population distrust the government and its policies - Confidence in the future seems to be possible only in the private sphere

Stuck between climate change and war, a large part of the population is disillusioned with politics and society and reacts to the perceived hopelessness by fleeing into private happiness. These are the central findings of a depth-psychological study and a representative survey conducted by the rheingold Institute on behalf of the Identity Foundation, a non-profit foundation for philosophy based in Düsseldorf.

The findings of the study can be described as dramatic. A deep resignation to politics and our future possibilities, as shown here, threatens our national coexistence. We are watching an entire country run for cover in the face of reality, while those responsible in Berlin politics get tangled up in small-small.

Paul J. Kohtes, chairman of the Identity Foundation.

Hardly any trust left in politics

There is a large discrepancy between Germans' personal confidence and their trust in politics, business and society. Three quarters of 18-65 year-olds (73 percent*) feel "that our politicians have no idea of what they are doing", 86 percent* believe that politics must develop overarching solutions to all the existing challenges (such as the climate crisis, inflation, social inequality) because these crises cannot be overcome individually by citizens.
But because politicians are failing in this regard in their eyes, only 34 percent* trust the government. To be sure, this is not - yet - a complete swan song for democracy, as 83 percent* agree: "Even in these times of political challenges, I am convinced that our democracy is still the best solution." But the gap between the perceived performance of incumbent politicians and what the population considers politically necessary is immense.

As a result, only 23 percent feel confident when looking at politics. And 56 percent* of those surveyed agree with the statement: "When I look at the development of politics and social moods in Germany like this, I would prefer to emigrate." Meanwhile, the vast majority of 87 percent find confidence primarily in their personal environment, among family, friends and acquaintances.

Policy does not offer an overarching perspective that activates the population's power to create

73 percent of 18-65 year-olds are confident in fields where their self-efficacy bears fruit, such as work, study or training. 60 percent* draw strength from being an active part of a social community. And 43 percent* are active in voluntary work or in associations, or are involved in politics or environmental issues in order to make their contribution to the community. A majority of 73 percent* agree that many things need to change and say "that the commitment of each individual is crucial in order to tackle the challenges facing society." What seems to be missing to mobilize this willingness to tackle is an overarching policy perspective that identifies ways to act together.

Crisis displacement as a shield

Already 59 percent* feel overwhelmed by the crisis situations of the present. And 68 percent* are withdrawing more and like to have their peace and quiet. Only 39 percent say they still inform themselves in detail about world events, while 31 percent feel that focusing on their own lives is more important than politics and the news.

The five issues that 18-65 year olds perceive as most pressing are primarily those that most directly impact their personal lives: Inflation (51 percent), poverty in old age (46 percent), climate change (43 percent), affordable housing (41 percent), and the energy crisis (41 percent). Many overarching political issues and global threats are subordinated to the directly experienced, present personal impact.

Overall, crisis suppression and a turn to the private sphere mean that a majority is no longer at all responsive to overarching change. Only 47 percent* say of themselves: "My personal commitment is crucial to mastering the challenges facing society." Germans' mixed feelings are causing their confidence in the future to plummet. Between great private optimism (87 percent) and almost equally pronounced political pessimism (77 percent), only 55 percent are (rather) confident about the future.


On the sample and method of the study:

As part of the qualitative study of the future, 35 respondents were interviewed in two-hour in-depth psychological interviews. When selecting the respondents, care was taken to ensure that political preferences and sociodemographic structures (gender, regional distribution, age distribution, education and occupation) were represented as accurately as possible. The in-depth explorations were conducted and analyzed by a team of five psychologists. The findings were supported by a quantitative online survey of the 18-65-year-old population (population-representative sample according to age, gender and federal state, n = 1,000).

* Top2 value (sum of the two scale points "fully agree" and "tend to agree") of the 4-point scale: "fully agree", "tend to agree", "tend to disagree", "disagree at all".

In-depth psychological findings of the study

Private confidence comes at a social price

The retreat of about half the population into private worlds goes hand in hand with a resigned attitude toward one's own ability to influence society. "Germans succeed in maximizing their confidence by minimizing their circle of vision," comments psychologist Stephan Grünewald, study director and founder of the rheingold Institute.

"What falls by the wayside as a result of this approach to crises is social acceptance of responsibility as well as a constructive culture of discussion."

Stephan Grünewald, rheingold Institute

The narrowing of the personal view manifests itself above all in a far-reaching suppression of global crises. The war in Ukraine, climate change and the migration crisis are ignored by most people in their everyday lives. For 57 percent of Germans, for example, the climate crisis is NOT one of the five most important crises, and 44 percent believe that politicians are doing enough or even too much for the climate. This has the effect of a curtain of suppression that visibly separates private life from the public sphere. Only topics relevant to personal everyday life, such as inflation, the energy crisis or the increasing divisiveness of society, are still perceived. The willingness of many citizens to inform themselves about the news situation is waning.

This at least makes a high level of private confidence possible, which is, however, accompanied by a diffuse underlying feeling of threat and a sense of the end of time. From a psychological point of view, the Germans are not in a (visionary) turn of the times, but in a stretched-out aftermath. They hope that the conditions they know and appreciate will continue for at least a certain time. An activating mood of departure borne by ideas is largely absent. The citizens' focus is directed toward stabilizing their own living environment. The most pressing fears people have are therefore of a loss of personal autonomy. The feelings of powerlessness experienced at the beginning of the Corona crisis and the Ukraine war should not be repeated. For many, the fear of social climate change and a division of society is greater than the fear of ecological climate change. 84 percent* experience increasing aggressiveness in their environment.

There is also a great fear of losing the system. The once proud view of Germany is giving way to gloomy visions of the future. Two-thirds fear that we will have to adjust our standard of living downward. Only one-third have faith in the power to improve the economic situation in the country again. And less than one in five can imagine that the sense of community in Germany and Europe will develop positively in the future.

The fears of the Germans in detail:

  • The fear of losing autonomy is the most pressing fear. It manifests itself in increasing feelings of powerlessness and a lack of self-efficacy. In addition, basic needs are being shaken. For example, increasingly expensive housing in cities and inflation raise new questions: How can I maintain my standard of living and pay my rent?
  • Fear of social climate change. Political radicalization from the right and left is observed with concern. The will to compromise is lacking, increasing the feeling of division. Little remains of the sense of community and mutual support that existed in the early days of Corona.
  • Fear of a loss of the system is reflected in Germany's perceived decline. Politicians argue, the economy stumbles, educational deficits and an ailing infrastructure complete the desolate picture.
  • Fear of global climate change is the fear that many people have so far been least aware of. The climate crisis only comes into view when drought, fires or floods threaten our own world. Many people secretly see themselves as benefiting from the crisis because, for example, the mild winter helps them save on heating costs. And many also cherish the hope of escaping the full force of the climate crisis after all. This is why the issue of climate is so polarizing among the population. For only 43 percent of 18-65 year-olds, the climate crisis is currently one of the five most important crises.

The three central sources of confidence

The surprisingly high level of private confidence, despite the many experiences of crisis, is fed by three manners:

  • Creating spatial and temporal oases of well-being
    People are constantly embellishing their own homes or organizing small escapes to vacations or nature. 93 percent* say they make themselves as comfortable as possible at home to create a safe retreat. 87 percent* like to go out into nature and find peace there. And 76 percent* manage to forget their worries on vacation and recharge with confidence. The ability to make oneself comfortable in private is dependent on individual wealth resources, with only one in four believing that their own economic situation will improve.
  • Social bulwarks
    Since the Corona pandemic, small but close social circles of like-minded people have become increasingly important. For 84 percent*, social interaction with friends and family has become more important. And 60 percent* derive strength and joy from being part of a social community. The small groups that have proven to be stable points of reference throughout the crises are well maintained. However, communities are becoming more and more hermetic and separate themselves from those who think differently. People who are strenuous because they hold a different opinion or attitude are often weeded out.
  • Self-modeling
    In a complex and crisis-ridden world, for many the self becomes the fulcrum for self-efficacy and a confidence-giving sense of achievement. Self-modeling can take place physically through sports, fitness or beauty care. Many strengthen themselves mentally through yoga, mindfulness or meditation. For 79 percent*, it is essential to consciously ensure relaxation in order to "be able to better bear life's challenges." For many, their own intuition and life experience also become a guide through everyday life. However, constantly circling around oneself carries the danger of getting stuck in self-reference.

Three transformational inhibitions create a passive-resignative attitude

However, the confidence and power that people develop in their oases of well-being, social retreats and self-reference are not transformed to the outside world. The view of the world outside is characterized by a rather passive-resignative attitude, which is primarily determined by three manners that can be described as transformational inhibitions:

  • Hope of redemption
    The hope of redemption goes hand in hand with the desire to be able to continue the life we have led up to now without having to make major sacrifices or changes. The greatest hope lies in the belief in progress: artificial intelligence, medicine and new technologies are supposed to solve the great problems of our time. There is also trust and hope in human reason or in the younger generation, to whom the tasks of the future are delegated. A variant of trust in God can also be found in the fact that 63 percent* of people take comfort in the fact that "everything we do has a purpose in the end.
    A second form of redemption is the belief in a saving authority that ensures that chosen scapegoats are stigmatized and negative things are averted in this way. This form is sometimes accompanied by outraged activism and the formation of conspiracy narratives.
  • The sale of indulgences
    The sale of indulgences supports one's own passivity through minor sacrifices. The most basic form is the fulfillment of civic duty: one does one's work, dutifully pays one's taxes, and has thus fulfilled one's debt to the future. A second form pays tribute to the crisis-ridden world outside by making small behavioral adjustments - for example, by giving up meat, switching to bicycles or reducing flying. A third, but rarer, form is active political engagement for a better global future that involves greater personal sacrifice or restriction.
  • Aestheticized immersion
    Immersing oneself in music or engaging with art opens up new perspectives and social meeting spaces. An evening at the movies, a visit to an exhibition or a play can widen one's view of the world outside. Aesthetics can therefore be an inspiring sphere of action for the emergence of new ideas, (Zuver) views or social visions that point beyond the horizon of the personal circle of life.

    However, the interviewees report that, especially since the Corona era, they are increasingly replacing creative immersion with self-referential immersion. Especially series on Netflix or social media like Tiktok have a numbing, comforting character. One enters media worlds that serve more as self-reflection than to promote a change of perspective. Moreover, media like Netflix in particular develop a fictional hermeticism, since one is no longer confronted with news or documentaries that focus one's gaze on the world outside. They thereby stabilize reality displacement and minimization of the circle of vision in an entertaining way.

Note to media:

Paul J. Kohtes (Identity Foundation) and Stephan Grünewald (rheingold Institut) are available for in-depth interviews on the study.

Detailed, illustrated documentation of the study results available for download:

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