Research MagazineSelf-Empowerment. A Society Divided by Mistrust

Peter Kirsch, Hanno Kube & Reimut Zohlnhöfer

Social self-empowerment is a topic of our time that has the potential to contribute significantly to the division of our society. Our concept of the term describes the phenomenon of people breaking legal and social rules of coexistence based on idealistic, political or ethical beliefs. Examples include the demonstrations of the Fridays for Future movement, or the deliberate flouting of hygiene and social distancing rules in the COVID-19 pandemic. Legal justifications such as self-defence or self-help usually do not apply in such cases. Rather, self-empowerment can often be classified as a type of civil disobedience.

Empirical evidence from two representative surveys which the authors conducted shows for the exemplary case of compliance with COVID-19 rules in Germany that only a small percentage of people has a tendency to self-empowerment. These people tend to be dissatisfied with the public measures taken in the fight against the pandemic, but also with the overall state of democracy in Germany. This discontent with democracy, in turn, could be related to a perceived divergence between popular and parliamentary majorities in other policy fields, such as European or migration policy.

When it comes to personal reasons for self-empowerment, there are no specific personality traits that predispose someone to adopt self-empowering behaviour. This is not least due to the fact that different forms of self-empowerment are regarded as acceptable by very different people. If we look specifically at self-empowerment in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we do find a group of traits that might be subsumed under the construct of conspiracy belief. People with a strong inclination to believe in conspiracy theories are mistrustful of the state, authorities, science and institutions, but also of their fellow humans.

Any measures aimed at curbing self-empowerment and helping to heal the rift in society should be designed to strengthen trust in the democratic polity and its institutions, and in science.

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RuCa 18 Kapitel II-3


Whether it is about the psychological effects of social distancing, breaking up a deathly molecular complex in the human body, social self-empowerment or antigypsy stereotypes – the topic UNITE & DIVIDE plays a role in many scientific contexts. In the 18th edition of the “Ruperto Carola” research magazine, 24 academics from Heidelberg University examine the issue from neurological, molecular-biological, physical, theological and other specialist perspectives and find answers to intriguing and highly relevant questions.

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The research magazine “Ruperto Carola” reports on scientific findings and ongoing research projects at Heidelberg University. Each issue of the magazine is dedicated to a socially relevant topic on which Heidelberg researchers present their scientific work across disciplines and subjects. In easy-to-understand language, the authors show the myriad ways in which research is conducted at Heidelberg University.

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