In the United States, politicians have been publicly accusing town hall protesters of being paid agitators. For some, the idea of ‘the usual suspects’ at social protests suggests wild-eyed do-gooders who are passionate about a range of causes. For others, an angry mob with no loyalty to any one cause.
Who are ‘the usual suspects’?: Identifying multi-cause protesters
To date, psychological research has largely not grappled with the question of multi-cause protesters. We know people support certain causes because of specific grievances or identities. For example, women exposed to sexism are more likely to be feminist. But it’s not well understood why people engage on multiple fronts of collective action.
Using survey responses from Australians protesting in 2003 anti-Iraq war rallies, we investigated the relationships between an individual’s activist network and their activism across time and causes.
5 reasons people engage in collective action for multiple causes
Our studies highlight five key factors that affect whether an individual would identify as an activist and take action for multiple causes.
When people succeed, or at least believe that success is possible, they feel “we can win, I can help, and we can do this together.” These beliefs transfer across to new causes they believe in.
2. Dispelling the activist myth
People can be critical of activists and some people may be fearful of getting involved in community action because of negative stereotypes. However, unfounded fears fade away after a first experience with community groups. People are ready to do more once they know what they’re signing up for.
3. New knowledge
When taking part in collective action, individuals are exposed to new social and political knowledge and become aware of privilege—something that used to be called “consciousness raising” in the old days. People in one group (e.g., against a local polluter) might teach you about a bigger picture (e.g., the environmental movement), and that will lead to more activism.
4. Growing trust
The mutual trust and respect that people build up as members of one group can transfer to the other groups and causes those activists support. It is therefore valuable for groups to be internally diverse because their message and the trust associated with it spreads farther into more communities and networks.
5. They were asked
Being directly invited by members of one group to become involved in other groups and causes is a factor increasing multi-cause activism. Being asked is one of the strongest predictors of collective action in any cause!
People won’t take action in new causes if their early experiences are negative
Of course, the flip side of the above are also true. Unrealistic expectations and perceived failure can be demoralising and lead to withdrawal. Scary or violent experiences, information that seems to conflict too much with one’s own political views, and hearing one’s own community or side of politics mocked and put down can be off-putting to new activists. Those factors can prevent people who are exposed to one group from taking on board the bigger networks of causes and actions.
In sum, early experiences in activism determine the degree to which a person identifies as an ‘activist’ and the way their social action spreads across multiple domains of collective action.
We continue to work on this question of spreading activism. I’m currently asking what leads people to disengage, up the ante, or radicalise after success or failure of collective action. Tulsi Achia is studying ally activism and Cassandra Chapman investigates how people choose which charities to support and how donors come to support multiple charitable causes. Finally, Nita Lauren asks how you can graduate people from doing easy forms of sustainable action or environmental activism to more difficult ones.
Stay tuned for our latest findings on how people work to change the world for the better.
- Winnifred Louis
Read the full article:
Louis, W. R., Amiot, C. E., Thomas, E. F. & Blackwood, L.M. (2016). The ‘Activist Identity’ and activism across domains: A multiple identities analysis. Journal of Social Issues, 72 (2), 242-263. doi: 10.1111/josi.12165
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.