Peace:Psychological Research Explains Why People Protest

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Psychological Research Explains Why People Protest

Nicole Fisher

Nicole Fisher Contributor

Special police forces on duty during demonstration


Whether it’s the outcome of a sporting event, anger at a perceived injustice, or an active uprising against government, protests are not the mindless mobs often depicted in the media and in movies. Protests are as old as human collective action. And while they may sometimes be unlawful in that action, the causes and intention are very predictable – meaning they could often be prevented if people better understand and acknowledged the psychological roots of collective behavior and crowd theory.

Experts in social psychology have done extensive work to understand the reasons that people protest, whether they be small and peaceful or large and disorderly. In fact, psychological research investigating and explaining the behaviors of crowds dates back to at least the mid-1800s. What makes a lot of this research so fascinating is the basic understanding that humans tend to prefer the safety and security of status quo. Thus, to join together in public action to fight against the norm - and create collective “disorder” - means that a number of factors have to be in place, uniting independent individuals.

History has shown us in every corner of the world, time and again that protests are the result of feelings like fear, frustration, and helplessness. And oftentimes it only takes one person to be the tipping point for collective action. But what are key ingredients for building an explosive environment? Here are a few of the emotional, environmental and societal factors that create and exacerbate protests:

Lack of Trust in Government or Authority: Being taken advantage of or lied to, causes panic and anger. And when these strong, negative emotions combine, there is no greater fuel for a fire. In 2019 it was estimated byPew Research Center that 2/3 of Americans did not have faith in the government, and that number has continued to erode as 2020 has progressed. In times when people feel they cannot trust those in power over them or there is palpable inequality separating them, they begin to revolt.

Shared Grievances: People in similar situations, whether they be financial, geographic, political, sexual, racial, or any other uniting factor, have a shared identity and purpose – even if only on one issue. But one uniting factor is all it takes. Because there are almost no emotions worse for humans than those of vulnerability and helplessness, those shared feeling can easily boil over, uniting people. And grievances, are a very strong motivation for mobilization.

Shared Intensity: When emotions run high, people make decisions they wouldn’t under “normal” circumstances. These can be good or bad decisions. Unfortunately, in many situations that involve groups of people, anger and frustration can build upon each other, until the collective rage spills over. In some instances, this can look like the reactions of fans during or after a sporting event. In other instances, this can look like the Salem witch trials. It fully depends on how people are able to feed off one another.

Geographic Proximity: Where one lives, and how close they are to others that share their beliefs greatly sways exposure to and acceptance of ideas and practices. Those next door to you have a more profound impact on you than those you see on tv living in another country. Geography is also a matter of volume. For example, it is much more common to see protests in densely populated areas than rural ones. Spontaneous collective action is easier the more people there are. And, the more people there are, the more likely the exposure to inequality.

Anonymity: Group behavior and dynamics are driven in many ways on the ability to be recognized. In some instances, people want their names and faces associated with what they believe in. But in many situations, due to fear of persecution, prosecution or retaliation, people will not act individually. However, when a group dynamic emerges, it is much easier to blend in, as well as share risk and disperse responsibility – thereby making it more likely that one is willing to take the risk.

Efficiency: When doing something alone, it can feel like a waste of time, energy, or money. For example, one small twitter account or one person writing a post online can feel like you’re shouting into a void. But when others begin to shout in unison, the noise becomes louder. And, when messaging is aligned (think hashtag campaigns), whether that be in-person or on-line, louder volume, greater funds, and more people means more time and attention on the issue at hand. Thus, our one small act feels like it carries greater weight and has more significant consequences. Efficiency leads to activation – sometimes called a “contagion effect.”

Survival Triggers: Adrenaline and stress hormones lead to the fight or flight response. And therefore our human involuntary responses kick in saying we are in survival mode. At this point we have an almost uncontrollable response that either tells us to stand our ground and fight, or turn and run from the danger. But, when we see others standing their ground, it’s much more likely that we will choose to do the same. But in any case, that undeniable human instinct plays a significant role in our immediate decision making.

Some protests are peaceful. Others are not. And while there is no handbook that can predict how each one will end, the predictability of a protest is well understood by social psychologists. The recipe has a number of ingredients, all of which are current factors in the day-to-day lives of Americans. How each city handles the collective tension, expectations and feelings of its citizenry is yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain, given how many of the characteristics necessary for a protest are happening in real time, much needs to be done – and quickly - to de-escalate tensions, restore faith, and calm the American psyche.

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May 1787 (Archive) • Peace

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Regions of the World with American Wars

"The loud little handful will shout for war. The pulpit will warily and cautiously protest at first…The great mass of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes, and will try to make out why there should be a war, and they will say earnestly and indignantly: ‘It is unjust and dishonorable and there is no need for war.' Then the few will shout even louder…Before long you will see a curious thing: anti-war speakers will be stoned from the platform, and free speech will be strangled by hordes of furious men who still agree with the speakers but dare not admit it...Next, statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception."

--Mark Twain