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The psychology behind protest

Following the recent wave of strikes, SciTech investigates the psychology behind protests and strikes.

By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist

For the last few months, the nation was enveloped by a wave of protests, strikes and pickets that also dominated the airwaves.

The likes of Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey have become household names and they seem to exert more influence than any mainstream politician or a journalist. Our own institution has seen its fair share of strikes over the last few weeks as the UCU launched a fresh string of strikes. Why is strike action gaining currency in the current zeitgeist? What is the sociology and psychology behind this time-honoured mode of expression of opposition and anger?

Several psychological theories that attempt to explain why people participate in protests and revolts. One such theory is Social Identity Theory, developed by a British social psychologist, Henri Tajfel, which suggests that people are more likely to engage in collective action when they identify with a particular group or social category and perceive a threat to that group's well-being or status. This theory implies that people may be more likely to participate in protests and revolts when they perceive their social identity is under-attack.

To put it more bluntly, in terms of revolutionary politics this is an example of “Us” against “Them”. The overused adage of “Strength in numbers” sums this up aptly. Walter Philip Reuther, the American labour and civil rights activist puts it more eloquently: “There is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.”

Milan Perera/Epigram

The minimal-group studies were interpreted as showing that the mere act of categorising individuals into groups can be sufficient to make them think of themselves and others in terms of group membership instead of as separate individuals.

Another theory that explains the psychology of protesting is Resource Mobilisation Theory, which suggests that individuals and groups are more likely to engage in collective action when they have the necessary resources, including money, time, and social connections, to do so. The theory was first outlined by the American academics, John McCarthy and Mayer Zald in a research paper they penned together in 1977.

This marks a significant departure from emotions as outlined by the Social Identity Theory. When this theory first appeared, it was a watershed moment in the study of protests and movements because it focused on variables that are sociological rather than psychological. According to this theory, social movements are not dictated by emotion-driven collective thinking.

Nevertheless, emotions play a significant role in the psychology of protesting and revolt. Many protesters experience a sense of anger, frustration, and powerlessness in response to perceived injustices or oppression. These emotions can motivate individuals to take action and challenge the status quo. Additionally, emotions like hope, solidarity, and camaraderie can fuel collective action and help sustain protests and revolts over time.

Symbols of protest can act as motivators triggering collective action and as unifying symbols for group solidarity against perceived injustice. Protest symbols such as placards, banners and in some cases, effigies deliver a vital role in activating collective thinking.

For protest symbols the simplicity and potency are of paramount importance as they should capture the attention of the viewer immediately and win them over to their side of the argument. Often, it is an effective simple formula that captures complex and nuanced arguments without the jargon.

For example, here is a protest poster that appeared during the UCU strikes at the University two years ago. It is called “Four Fights”. In terms of language this is very well thought through as the rolling out of “Four” and “Fights” together is an example of alliteration, a literary device used by writers from Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood which immediately grabs the attention of the reader. The discussion of pay and working conditions would easily clock up several thousand words but the protestors managed to do the impossible by compressing it into four short phrases. The power of simplicity is apparent throughout history, where political strategists and artists alike strived for simplicity and protests are no exception.

The psychology of protesting and revolt is complex and multifaceted, and understanding it requires an examination of both individual and collective factors that contribute to the decision to engage in collective action.

Featured image: Milan Perera/Epigram