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Life Psychology

How to Identify and Avoid Protectionist Thinking

Man with back turned holding umbrella. Photo by Darkness on Unsplash
Featured in The Startup

We are all familiar with protectionist thinking, whether we recognise it or not. As humans, it’s almost unavoidable. We all think this way at the very least a few times in our lives.

Protectionist Thinking is the thought process where a person aims to minimise risks to their perceived state or condition by actively or passively seeking an alternate negative stance to avoid displacement.

That’s quite a lot to take in so let’s break down what that means.

Have you ever been challenged during a period of change in your personal life or at work when all the evidence is clear but you’ve refused to make choice, take action, or accept the direction of others for fear it will result in failure?

Of course you have, we have all been in this situation from time to time. It’s a natural response of the human condition to assess events around us and avoid those we perceive will hurt us, it’s this careful judgement that has kept our species alive in dangerous situations.

When this becomes the default setting, the lens through which a person views the world, it moves from innate and healthy risk avoidance to locked-in patterns of protectionist thinking.


It is crucial here to make the distinction between ‘Critical Thinking’ and ‘Protectionist Thinking’, while they share some aspects it is where they differ that is important to explore.

A commonly understood definition of Critical Thinking is:

Disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Dictionary.com

Or in deeper understanding:

…purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based…

Facione, Peter A. (2011) — Wikipedia

While it may seem that protectionist thinking shares similarities with critical thinking, it does not share the same sense of clarity, open-mindedness, and informed components.

It is the aspect of objective rational thought that is the key difference.

Simply put, Protectionist Thinking is defensive thought that’s driven by negative personal opinion, misinformation, inflexibility, inaccurate belief, and irrational fear.

People who think in a protectionist manner are often incredibly risk adverse, antagonistic without reason, and do not engage well with periods of change. They hold onto what is familiar, act negatively towards new ideas, and often fail to adapt well to changing circumstance.


Sometimes it can be difficult to recognise protectionist thinking in others, and most especially within ourselves. Though it’s not as simple as meeting a set of criteria.

Just because a person holds a particularly negative view about something doesn’t mean they are thinking in a protectionist manner. It may be simply that they have had well informed experiences that give them insight into the challenges ahead.

The identification of protectionist thinking occurs over time. Through observation of reactions to different situations the patterns may be more easily identified.

Think of a situation you’ve experienced where a period of change has been inevitable. How did the people around you react to the news of the change?

You probably noticed that some of the people around you were excited that things were changing around them. Delighted by the possibilities that would present just over the horizon.

Conversely, you may have also noticed that there were some people who argued against the change as if it was a looming beast that would serve only to disrupt and devour everything they’d worked towards so far.

While all change causes disruption, what did those people reacting negatively do?

Almost certainly some would have initially rallied against the change, but ultimately accepting that change will always eventuate begin to prepare for its arrival. This kind of reaction is healthy, but we don’t all react to change the same way and sometimes need to process loss and what change will bring.

What about those people who utterly refuse to accept change?

Perhaps they’ve been working for far too long in one direction or towards a single goal which has now been invalidated. Maybe the impending change will disrupt a position of privilege they have carefully manicured. It could be as simple as an unrealistic fear the person has created internally by attempting to think too far ahead.

Whatever their reasoning for rejecting change, its this kind of approach that fosters a protectionist mindset.

Here are a few traits of a person who may think in a protectionist manner:

  • Adoption of an immediate ‘no-but’ attitude.
  • Being less available and not easy to locate.
  • Reducing communication.
  • Refusal of outside assistance.
  • Removal of transparency to cloud any true position.
  • Presenting a ‘larger-than-reality’ view on the importance of work they perform.
  • Occupying a persistent defensive stance.
  • Creating ‘busy-work’ for subordinates who call out issues.
  • Providing complicated explanations to simple queries.
  • Disproportionately seeking to highlight the failure of others.
  • Careful redirection of individuals who challenge their position of authority.
  • Limiting relationships to only the most personally trusted individuals.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives insight into protectionist thought.

What this all boils down to is a simple and rudimentary fear of change. Irrational or not, to the individual who is caught in the cycle of protectionist thinking the threat to self is very real and can paralyse easily.

Given the list of traits above that identify protectionist thinking it would seem an easy task to recognise someone as a protectionist thinker, yet it isn’t as simple as it may seem on the surface.

I’m sure you’ve already thought of a few people you know in your personal or work life who you’ve encountered that exhibit some of these traits, but don’t write off those individuals as protectionist thinkers just yet. If the evidence is circumstantial, then the result can only also be circumstantial. You may have caught the person on a bad day, or they may have received some unfortunate news and they are reacting to its immediacy.


Throughout our lives everyone will experience protectionist thinking at some time, no one type of person is at more risk of becoming a protectionist thinker.

It is a natural human response to reduce or remove any perceived threat to self, so it is those who hold the belief they have something significant to lose who will travel more readily the path towards protectionist thinking.

The more aware you are of how you react to new situations, information, and change the easier it will be for you to identify protectionist thinking in yourself and work to over come it.


While it’s not easy to accept a different way of thinking up front, it is more than possible to alter your thinking. Exposure to different ways to look at the world helps craft the way we think and in turn allows us to grow past our own perceived limitations. We can access alternative forms of thinking through articles and books we read, people we listen and speak to, media we view, and the stories we relate to each other.

There are two truths to remember:

  • Everyone experiences protectionist thinking from time to time.
  • Nobody thinks in a protectionist manner their entire life.

Here are some strategies to avoid protectionist thinking, and to remember during any period of change:

  • Acknowledge that change is inevitable. Recognising and accepting change is one of the most powerful steps to remaining positive and to avoid protectionist thinking.
  • Avoid irrational conclusions. Stop trying to out-think what is likely to happen, embrace that change brings with it new opportunity for personal and professional growth.
  • Understand What You Can and Can’t Control. An important distinction to make in a period of change is what you can, and can’t, control. You can control how you react, your outlook, your enthusiasm, and your actions.
  • Communicate. Change is never a reason to reduce communication. It’s important to keep in communication with others while change is occurring and to make sure others are aware that you’re open to change.
  • Have the Courage to Ask for Help. If you’re feeling like the change is overwhelming, its likely that others also feel the same. It’s perfectly fine to feel uneasy about change, but don’t suffer for it. Reach out and connect with others who are sharing the experience.
  • Be Flexible. The better you are able to assess and adapt to change, the greater your changes of succeeding when change occurs.
  • Remain Positive. The easiest thing to do when faced with a period of change is to slip into a negative stance. Understand the skills and experience you have and where you can apply them to embrace the change.
  • Take Care of Yourself. It’s never healthy to dwell on what might be. Instead, focus on your own well-being. Ensure you’re drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, exercising well. It all helps to ensure you’re able to adapt.

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By Tim King

Tim is a creative thinker, self-proclaimed futurist, and writer based in Central Victoria, Australia. He's been designing and developing digital content online for over a decade and loves digging into the big topics that shape our world, applying his own brand of thought along the way.

You'll usually find him thinking far too hard about the future, often with a good glass of red in hand.