What Drives us to Participate in Protests and Rallies
Most bad government has grown out of too much government.
- Thomas Jefferson
In the past decade, the world has seen instances of citizen-led uprisings, protests and movements for a wide range of causes. Social rights activists rallying support for equal rights between the sexes and races, acknowledgement of gender diversity and governmental transparency, environmental activists taking the streets to sound the clarion call for organizations and politicians to act on climate change, humanitarian movements voicing concerns over what they perceive to be transgressions of human rights among marginalized communities the world over. The growing tide of such public movements evident as well through social media hashtags – #occupywallstreet #blacklivesmatter #metoo, mirroring the dominance of these collective movements headlining media outlets the world over. Citizen-led protests in the Middle East – the Arab Springs at the start of the decade, and in Hong Kong, where citizens protested against their own government in response to the fugitive amendments bill are two more recent examples of collective action.
Collective action consists of any group effort mobilized toward a common cause. Such movements and public assemblies have been the subject of considerable psychological research . The psychological ingredients for collective movements consist of (i) identification to the group (ii) an estimation of the group’s ability to bring about change, (iii) how much injustice we see in a target’s behaviour or action and (iv) what we feel toward the entire situation. This psychological model for understanding collective action is referred to as the Social Identity Model of Collective Action (SIMCA) and tells us that while the issue (or issues) inciting such protests may differ, what underlies such movements can essentially be traced to who we identify with, what we perceive of our groups, and of course, what we feel towards the situation confronting our groups .
It Matters How We Identify with and See Our Groups
How much do you identify with your group? Collective action stems first from how much we identify with – and see ourselves as, part of a greater collective. When we are in the company of others, we think less in terms of ‘me’ and more in terms of ‘us.’ You’re more likely to involve yourself in your group’s efforts and share in its goal of motivating change if the share with your group the perceptions of the situation being unjust. Your group’s challenges become your personal concern. Social psychologists refer to the ‘melding’ of individual and group identities as ‘depersonalization’ – you set aside the wants and ideals of yourself as an individual for the collective concern. Indeed, for social movements, we take it one step further. When we identify with the group, we see our group’s fortunes and successes, threats and failures as our own. Our sense of self then becomes connected with the group – anything that offends or transgresses on our group’s justice ideals demeans and offends us as well. How strongly we take on our group labels to our individual self – conservative, nationalist, liberal, progressive, democrat, republican, all shape our decision to involve ourselves for the group’s ideals and goals . One study showed that above and beyond perceptions of conflict with other groups, it was the strength of an individual’s group identification was the strongest predictor of collective action and participation in trade union activities . Simply put, the more strongly we see ourselves as part of the collective, the more likely we are to engage in collective action.
Can We Succeed? And How do We Feel About It All?
Do you think your group will succeed in its collective action? What do you feel toward the unjust situation? These two questions concern perceived group efficacy and emotions and also prompt your decision to engage in collective action. If you see your group’s actions as likely to succeed and feel strong emotions toward the injustice, then you would be likely to engage in collective action. A series of studies by Nicole Tausch and colleagues shows that perceived group efficacy and emotions may influence different forms of collective action. Studying collective movements in Europe across multiple issues – from the protest of tuition fees, ingroup disadvantage and government foreign policies, the researchers find that both perceived group efficacy and emotion were related to collective action – but through different processes. When we see our groups as efficacious and feel anger, we are more likely to engage in more ‘normative’ actions – signing online petitions, writing flyers, or taking to the streets in a show of solidarity and marking for a common cause. When we experienced contempt in response to the injustice, however, we are more likely to engage in non-normative actions. These include unlawful, aggressive actions such as arson and assault .
Studies of collective action also show that we too, feel a wide range of emotions – other than anger, that motivates our decision to engage in collective action. It is easy to see how anger can motivate collective action – but what about emotions such as shame and guilt? These aren’t often thought of as emotions that cause us to participate in public protests. However, studies have shown that group-felt shame prompted more collective, shared objections for some issues – the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, for one . Another study showed that feeling guilt as part of a collective was a strong factor determining group members engagement in calls for climate change action . It seems that within the context of groups, how we feel also influences our decisions as a group. Emotions such as anger and contempt appear to influence action directed towards more forcefully toward the parties seen to be perpetuating injustice. Conversely, feeling shame and guilt appear to motivate more prosocial forms of collective action – we band together in support of, and to alleviate the wrongdoings of which we ourselves may have been a part of.
Standing as One, Standing for Something
The changes we see in society, the growing acceptance and rejection of certain ideas and the ‘air of morality’ that has evolved over the course of human history lends part of its cause to collective movements and actions. Such movements see no sign of slowing down. In fact, the growing use of social media has accelerated the spread of information (and unfortunately, misinformation), ideas and ideals – all of which will leave an influence on how we govern, conduct, and express our group’s values. The Twitter revolution in 2009 – the increase in the use of social media in communication and organizing collective protests shows that we’re now organizing our collective movements virtually; protests and public assemblies can be organized through the sharing of information online . But the essence of our movements remains deeply embedded within our psychological needs for justice, along with our perceptions of our group’s strengths and shared emotions. The core of collective action remains deeply psychological. It shows us that we all want to belong to a group, often feel as a group, and, when needed, see our groups as instruments of revolutionary change.