Fatalism in Counseling

Mental health scholars have long been interested in fatalism. In 1959 Bruce P. Dohrenwend, in an extension of the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s late-19th-century writings, posited that fatalism was a common cause of mental disorder and suicide. Fatalism was thought of as a societal response to excessive regulation and oppressive discipline, in the extreme like that experienced by prisoners. In psychological paradigms, fatalism has most frequently been grounded in the generalized expectancies framework, for example, internal-external locus of control. In this perspective fatalistic persons believe they have little or no influence on events that will happen to them. Other common prominent characterizations of fatalistic beliefs include a stable future orientation and malleable attributions of the causes of previous events.

Many scholars have thought individuals’ overall fatalism would lead to poor adaptation, lack of behavioral control, and, in turn, poor health and well-being; results have been mixed, however. One approach to derive more consistent findings has been to define situation-specific fatalistic beliefs that may inhibit specific protective actions, such as those related to coping with disease, unemployment, or natural disasters. The way global fatalism has typically been constructed also has limitations when applied to more collectivist groups. One major challenge has been to discriminate what reflects spirituality or faith, which may be adaptive in many circumstances, from that of a negative expectation about outcomes where persons do have agency. An example of this problem appears in the literature of fatalismo in Latinos/as, the extent to which a person believes his or her destiny is not under his or her control. Although fatalism was thought to be parallel to fatalismo, fatalismo, when described by Latinos/as, includes components of spirituality as well as external locus of control, but neither fully encompasses it. It would be inappropriate to assume fatalismo is broadly associated with poor mental health, maladaptive behaviors, or passivity toward one’s life. When extended to populations of Asian descent, fatalism may include beliefs of a higher order, a characteristic not inherent in typical Western conceptualizations.

Given multiple definitions of fatalism and questions about its comparability and meanings across cultural groups, scholars and practitioners should not assume all fatalistic-type beliefs are maladaptive. Promising approaches for intervention and therapy may focus on negative expectations toward future outcomes for which the respondent does have substantial agency and incorrect negative attributions for past events.


  1. Guzman, M., Santiago-Rivera, A., & Hasse, R. (2005). Understanding academic attitudes and achievement in Mexican-origin youths: Ethnic identity, other-group orientation, and fatalism. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 11(1), 3-15.
  2. Neff, J., & Hoppe, S. (1993). Race/ethnicity, acculturation, and psychological distress: Fatalism and religiosity as cultural resources. Journal of Community Psychology, 21(1), 3-20.
  3. Yeh, C., Inman, A., Kim, A., & Okubo, Y. (2006). Asian American families’ collectivistic coping strategies in response to 9/11. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(1), 134-148.

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