The Psychology of Effective Protest
New research shows why nonviolence works better than extreme tactics.
Nearly every faction that opposes Trump seems to have organized its own protest in recent months. The women have already marched, and now they’re doubling down with a day without women. (They’ve taken a page from immigrants, whom we also went a day without.) Soon, many scientists will march, as will some taxpayers who want to make sure Trump is one, too.
Most of these protests have been peaceful, but the protest against a planned speech by former Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulous at the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this month showed that left-wing groups aren’t just about nonviolence and vagina drawings. The protesters “threw smoke bombs, knocked down barriers, set fires and started fights in the south campus area,” as USA Today reported, prompting President Trump to threaten Berkeley’s “FEDERAL FUNDS.”
These splashier protests do draw lots of media coverage, research shows, because of journalists’ appetite for anything novel or unusual. But several new studies on the psychology behind protests show that, perversely, “extreme” protests like that at Berkeley also undermine activists’ overarching goal of attracting more people to their movement. What’s worse, activists don’t realize they are hoisting themselves with their own smoke bombs.
For one recent study, which is currently under review, the authors examined what happened when three different types of protesters—animal rights, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Trump—used either moderate or extreme protest tactics.
“A prototypical extreme protest is something where vandalism occurs or violence is threatened, or protesters behave in a violent way, or an interstate highway gets shut down,” said Robb Willer, a Stanford University sociologist and co-author of the study. The Women’s March, Willer says, is a prototype of a moderate protest—one without hateful rhetoric or violence.
First, the researchers found that the study’s participants identified less with and were less willing to support a fictional group of animal-rights protesters who broke into an animal-testing facility than with those who marched peacefully. Then, both African-American and white participants felt more support toward Black Lives Matter protesters if they read that the protesters chanted anti-racist slogans than if they encouraged violence against police officers.
Finally, and perhaps most topically: The researchers showed people a video of a “moderate” anti-Trump protest, in which protesters held signs and chanted, as well as a news report about an “extreme” protest, in which protestors caused a traffic jam and blocked Trump supporters from reaching a Trump rally. People shown the extreme anti-Trump protests actually supported Trump more—an effect that occurred, to varying degrees, among liberals and conservatives alike.
Over and over, the researchers found the reason the extreme protesters were dissuasive is that less-radical bystanders couldn’t identify with them. People generally don’t see themselves as disruptors of the social order, Willer told me, even for causes they believe in. Ultimately, our belief in something is surpassed by our desire to conform.
“When the social order is being greatly disrupted, when property is being destroyed, when there’s some risk of harm to people, that leads to a dis-identification effect, where people say ‘I’m not like those people,’” Willer said.
The problem is, the extreme protesters didn’t realize this would happen. When Willer and his co-authors surveyed people about the causes they believe in and what they would be willing to do for the cause, the truest believers were willing to go to the most extreme lengths—and they thought the tactics would help gin up support.
“It can be really difficult to take the perspective of a bystander who has not yet joined a movement, when you’re interacting mostly with other activists,” Willer said. “Bystanders are asking, ‘Am I like them? Can I see this issue the way they see it?’”
The findings echo the results of another recent study by Princeton University’s Omar Wasow, which found that nonviolent, civil-rights protests of the 1960s boosted votes among whites for Democratic candidates, who supported civil rights, while violent protests increased support for Republicans, and might have even tipped the the 1968 election for Richard Nixon.
“Nonviolence conveys moderation, and when things escalate to violence, that signals a radical or extreme movement,” Wasow said. “It makes the claims of the group less legitimate.”
So what’s the best way to protest for maximum influence? As my colleague David Frum has written, “The more conservative protests are, the more radical they are. ... Be orderly, polite, and visibly patriotic. ... The goal is to gain allies among people who would not normally agree with you.”
That might mean focusing on issues rather than specific politicians like Trump. Here’s how New York magazine’s Jesse Singal explained it:
“You want everyone who can get into the streets,” said [Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland]. But in the longer term, there could be downsides to harping too much on Trump, when many of the policy preferences he has stated or hinted at with his appointments — repealing the Affordable Care Act, restricting access to abortion, and others — are also held by plenty of other conservative politicians. So if the protest movements arising now are all anti-Trump, all the time, [the University of Michigan political sociologist] Michael Heaney said, there’s a heightened risk “they never achieve the policy changes they were aiming to achieve,” because once Trump leaves office it saps the movement’s energy.
But even as movements focus on issues, the research shows that they should do their best to welcome all comers. And the best way to do that is to appear, frankly, welcoming. “What do you do to build a coalition?” Wasow said. “You’ve got to appeal not to the liberals, but to the moderates.” In his study about the 1960s, that meant enticing people who weren’t vocally pro-integration, but weren’t unpersuadable either.
In the current context, he said, “These are people who might vote for Obama and vote for Trump.”