The Psychology of Protests
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
A recent paper, “The Activist’s Dilemma,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looks at the effect of extreme behavior on popular support for social movements. Considering this year has been fraught with angst and anguish and scattered with protests around the world, I found this extremely relevant.
Authors Matthew Feinberg (University of Toronto), Rob Willer (Stanford University), and Chloe Kovacheff (University of Toronto) examined how that actions of protesters affect support for their particular social movement, particularly why violent or harmful actions undermine support for the very cause the protesters are advocating. They further studied the perceived immorality of the protests, the level of emotional identification with the protest, and the level of social identification with the protest. Three issues were studied: animal rights, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Trump protests.
In each study, the participants were interviewed as to their political leanings and their stands on these issues. Then they were divided into three groups. Each group was given a written report of the same fictitious protest. One report described one where the protesters were peaceful protest, one where the protesters were violent occurred, and one where the protesters were extremely violent.
In the animal rights study, the results clearly demonstrated that violent measures resulted in less social support for the group among the study’s participants. Moreover, the more extreme the violence taken, the greater the decrease in support. The average age of participants in the animal-rights study was thirty-five.
The second study looked at the Black Lives Matter protests. These protests actually started in 2013 after the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was used on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. More recently, more than 20 million people have protested in the United States alone in 2020 for the rights and validation of African-Americans after the death of George Floyd. Although the BLM protests were always meant to be a peaceful, nonviolent movement, they have clearly become more extreme. Feinberg, Willer, and Kovacheff had more than 150 participants again participate in a fictitious BLM study. The average age of the participants was thirty-six. Yet again, the researchers found that an increase in extreme protest measures resulted in a decrease in identification with the movement.
The third study used more than 250 participants, with an average age of thirty-six, to determine if extreme behavior by anti-Trump protesters increased or decreased support for that cause and identification with the anti-Trump group. The study took into account the political views of the participants, whether pro- or anti-Trump. What their results indicated was that the more extreme the protest violence, the greater the decrease in the participant’s personal identification with that movement. Moreover, the researchers found that when Trump supporters were faced with more extreme measures of anti-Trump protesters, they actually increased their support for Trump.
It is no surprise that some of the most influential protests in history were peaceful, nonviolent protests. The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche (castle church) in Wittenberg. In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi organized the Salt March, leading more than 60,000 protesters on a 240-mile peaceful walk in India to protest British rule, which prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, an Indian diet staple. In 1950, there was South Africa’s National Day of Protest, in which thousands of South Africans protested calmly though a “stay-at-home” strike held to advocate equal justice and equality for Blacks. One of the most memorable protests in history occurred in August 1963 on the Washington Mall, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 peaceful protesters in support of equality and justice for Black people in the U.S. This protest forever changed the landscape of voting and civil rights in this country.
One of my personal favorite protests was the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in 2003 in Liberia. Echoing Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata, women across Liberia country quietly staged a sex strike, which was instrumental in ending the thirteen-year-old Second Liberian Civil War and culminated in the election of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In the 21st century, a number of peaceful protests have changed our world. These include the March for Science in 2017, which was held internationally in response to the current U.S. administration’s budget cuts to science and the environment, as well as the Women’s March on Washington, also in 2017, which was the largest-ever public demonstration. It became a global phenomenon during a single day as millions of women around the world peacefully protested the current American administration’s misogynistic views.
In psychology there is a concept called “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to listen to and pay more attention to information that confirms their already-held beliefs and ignore or invalidate information that is contradictory to those beliefs. This concept has been used to help explain the persistence of stereotypes for groups of people (among other social psychology models). As Feinberg, Willer, and Kovacheff clearly illustrate, the more violent and extreme the protests, the less affinity one feels for the cause, which reduces their desire to participate.
The late social psychologist Serge Moscovici, in his book The Age of the Crowd, A Historical Treatise on Mass Psychology (1985), theorized that, to influence members of a majority group, members holding a minority opinion must maintain their position in a consistent, clear, firm, and confident manner without being rigid, violent, or dictatorial. He further suggested that majority members often have aligned themselves with the majority in order to feel liked and be part of the bigger “club,” if you will. Yet individuals do have the propensity to adopt the minority opinion if they feel being in the majority has forced a shift in their attitudes and beliefs. This is most likely is not going to happen, however, if they are being intimidated through aggression, unlawful acts, or threats to their personal safety.
As a Silver Sager, I have been to many protests including the Women’s March, BLM, March for Our Lives, and several others over the past several decades on the Mall in Washington D.C. (i.e., AIDS Walk, Freedom Sunday, etc.). Those protests, which were nonviolent, whether large or small, had the most impact on me personally. I have cried at many and took days of self-reflection after each. Teach your children and grandchildren how to negotiate, argue respectfully and use their intellect, articulation and education to protest in a clear, firm and confident manner. As Mya Middleton, a 16-year-old, said at the March for Our Lives protest in 2018, “We are the turn of this century. We are the voice of change. We are here to fix what America is falling short of.” Nearly two million young people peacefully protested in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more joined the fight around the world.
Stop the shouting and screaming. Cease the shootings and lootings. Ease up on the riot-gear-laden law enforcement personnel and sit down peacefully to protest. And if all else fails, think like Lysistrata!
Photo credit by: Silver Sager, Clem Onojeghuo (London, UK) @clemono