Why people protest: Motivations of a serial protestor 

Why people protest is a mystery to many. A protestors cause may attract the sympathy of some. But few people actively participate in the protest itself.

Put off by the discomfort of large crowds and the dangers they face, most figure if someone else is already bearing the cost of a protest why join one?

But some people are attracted to protests. Moreover, they don’t just go to one protest, they join many different ones. Sometimes on the same day. With protest and civil unrest on the rise, it’s worth asking what motivates the serial protestor?

Why people protest

Motivations of a serial protestor

Discovering why anyone does anything is hard. For example, criminologists try to understand a criminal’s mind but remain no more effective than a bartender. Therefore, we’ll avoid a deep psychological profile and limit ourselves to a simple model of motivation.

Three Principles of Motivation

BJ Fogg is a Stanford Professor that suggests people are driven by:

  1. Pain / Pleasure
  2. Fear / Hope
  3. Isolation / Social inclusion

Notwithstanding the protestor’s worthwhile causes, Fogg’s theory on human motivation suggests protests are very attractive. Because they offer people all three motivations: social inclusion, hope and pleasure.

Social inclusion: Protestors feel part of something

Many people join a protest because they feel excluded from society. A protest gives them a sense of belonging, a community.

‘A Protest if nothing else is a community’. Zeynep Tufecki

Serial protestor motivation is social inclusion

People make friends, share experiences, and build long-lasting relationships through protests. In a world where community is hard to find, the protest has a unique offering. It is like a big party. And, just as we fear missing out on a party, people fear missing out on a protest.

Of course, a protest is riskier to attend than a party. Being sat next to a frozen pea tester at dinner is tedius. Whereas being hit by a baton can be lethal. However, the threat of danger has its own appeal. Because sharing moments of adversity forms an uncommon bond.

Social media

Add social media to the mix and protests appeal even more. Not only does social media keep non-attendees connected but it also makes protests more inclusive. Because everyone has a voice on social media, the same overflows to the physical protest. As a result, protests use a flat, decentralised power structure (referred to as horizontalism). This gives every protestor a say in decision making. Therefore, protests feel highly participatory and socially inclusive.

Why people protest is clear, it offers social inclusion.

Hope: Protest brings a new beginning

Many protestors are anti-authoritarian. In other words, they oppose institutions and the electoral process because they’re seen as only serving existing power structures. This anti-authoritarian attitude most likely stems from a past wrong experienced by the protestor or others with whom they identify.

To see protest, not institutions or elections as the way to change the world is highly motivational. Because it is a simple, easily understood solution to a complex problem.

Why people protest is simple, it offers hope.

Pleasure: Love to protest

Being part of a protest is pleasurable. Meeting similar people is fun. But the protest itself has properties that make it a truly uplifting experience.

Protest motivation - brings pleasure

Meet similar people

Before social media, if your view was not reflected in the media (TV, press, radio) it was easy to think it was unique to you. However, social media algorithms makes finding likeminded people easy. As a result, if you are anti-authoritarian, finding others who share your view and show their solidarity through protest is probably the ultimate vindication of your views.

Uplifting experience

Being part of a crowd that acts and communicates as one generates a powerful feeling of euphoria, known as ‘collective effervescence’ (Emile Durkheim). This uplifting experience means protestors feel they are part of something much larger than themselves. A sense of awe and being ‘in touch with the universe’ overcomes them.

Why people protest is obvious, it is a pleasurable experience.

Conclusion: Why people Protest

Throughout history protest has been a feature of society and the impact of Black Lives Matter shows it’s alive and well. Of course, for many organisations and our SIRV users, protest is disruptive, costly and dangerous (our work on Protest in London visualisation shows frequency). But, if we wish to manage it we must first understand it. Therefore, to recognise that the motivation of the protester is no different to yours or mine is important. After all, who doesn’t want to be part of something, have hope and experience pleasure?

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