Changing minds and social change: can we predict and influence activist commitment?

foebrisPublic participation is an essential element of a healthy democracy. People engage in collective actions and form groups with political aims to influence the direction and nature of change in their world.  One of the conundrums for activist groups wanting to mobilise their community is how to engage others and keep them engaged for the long haul. Retaining the valuable experience of people in the movement is vital to the task. 

At the heart of this research is the question of why people choose to act: what social, environmental and psychological conditions must exist for individuals to participate in collective actions?

As a student of psychology and social work I have had pause to reflect on these dilemmas. What if we could predict whether people will act on a political issue? Dr Winnifred Louis, of the Centre for Research in Social Psychology at the University of Queensland, says we can.  For more than a decade now, Louis has been researching psychological dimensions of collective actions, particularly in the Australian peace movement.

The importance of norms.

At the heart of this research is the question of why people choose to act: what social, environmental and psychological conditions must exist for individuals to participate in collective actions? Social Identity Theory holds that when people identify with groups, they adopt the values of those groups and behave in ways consistent with group goals. Group membership thus contributes to a person’s ‘norms’ (or what they consider normal behaviour), which are strong predictors of intentions to act. There are two important theoretical constructs at play in this scenario: your personal norms and your perception of your own capacity to act (known as control beliefs).  It is community empowerment, convincing people that they can act, that are the primary goals of environmental and social justice activists.


When norms are misaligned, people react negatively…. People don’t just ignore the info – they actually lower their… intentions and behaviour

Social theorists believe that a causal relationship may exist between norms and behaviour. Azjen and Fishbein (1975) developed a Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) to answer the question as to why intentions alone are not always predictive of behaviour. TPB has since been used in health promotion and marketing programmes to design more persuasive messaging.

To predict whether a person intends to do something we need to know: whether they are in favour of doing it; whether they feel social pressure to do it; and whether they feel able to carry out the action needed. While people often have good intentions, they can be prohibited from acting at some level: if my attitude towards coal seam gas is negative, I still may be prevented from acting on that attitude if I hold normative and control beliefs that prohibit my engagement in such actions. If I come from a culture that is condemnatory of collective actions, or that portrays activism as deviant (or as the action of “ferals”, as the Australian media often does), my perception of social norms against collective action could prevent me from attending a rally.  Azjen and Fishbein say we focus on the norms of “significant others,” (including family and friends) in deciding what to do. So I might not go to a rally if I thought I would be teased or if none of my friends would do it.  

The concept of norms includes: (a) your perceptions of what others think is the right thing to do in a given situation (injunctive norms); and (b) whether or not other such action is taken by people who are important to you (descriptive norms). In other words, you are more likely to act if you think others would and you see them doing so: there is apparent alignment between stated beliefs and behaviour. However, when a disjoint between stated beliefs and actions arises, the situation of conflict creates an opportunity for changing your beliefs and actions.  

Louis’ research has shown how the combination of thinking and seeing others do the right thing is more predictive than either on its own.  Framing an issue to conform to perceived norms is relevant to how well that issue will be accepted and acted upon by its intended audience. When you decide that you will go to a protest action, that decision may become a turning point in your life, depending on the messages that you get from your fellow protesters and the groups they belong to and, to a lesser degree, on your perceptions of whether that particular tactic was effective in achieving the aims of that particular collective action.  When Louis, studied the effect of peer approval (invoking the injunctive norm) of political actions on students, she found that participants would be more likely to perform an action if they perceived that others of their social group were also doing so.  They found that “participants attitudes to signing (a petition) became more positive if they were told other…students approved of signing” and were shown graphs indicating the approval rate of other students (60% signed in this condition). Conversely, the rate of “willingness to act” decreased if participants were told other students disapproved and hadn’t signed in the past” (31% signed in this condition).  The power of social approval in this and other studies indicates “the surprisingly strong influence of even subtle normative information on people’s decision-making” (Louis 2004).

A critical question from the activist point of view is the psychological effect of campaigns that highlight social or environmental behaviour that is not approved of or is harmful (eg., too much waste; widespread discrimination) in the absence of a positive role model/example (eg., recycling; peace practice).  We may hope that a campaign message alone provides incentive for change or engagement in positive action.  However, research suggests that when our normative experience conflicts with an intervention campaign message, the message may be ineffective or counter-productive.  Indeed, in several studies, such messages backfired.  When told that other people approved of action (such as energy conservation, sunburn protection, etc.) in principle, but that they were not taking such action in practice, participants showed lower intentions to act themselves. In summary, Louis finds that: “When norms are misaligned, people react negatively…. People don’t just ignore the info – they actually lower their… intentions and behaviour (a backlash effect).”

Identification, personal capacity, knowledge.

Louis’ 2006 longitudinal study of peace activists’ intentions found that those with the highest identification with a group were more likely to have intentions to act (disseminating information and educating others, political lobbying and lawful protest) to further the group’s aims than those without group affiliations. Another important factor correlating with intentions to act was participants’ control beliefs (people who felt that they had the personal power to carry out actions and that those actions would be met with approval by the group). Similarly, Louis found that people who perceived that others held positive attitudes towards environmental actions were more likely to hold those attitudes and have intentions to act likewise.

In another study of the media use habits of peace activists (2005), Louis found that non-supporters of the war in Iraq were better informed and sought information from a more diverse range of media sources than supporters of the war, who depended mostly on mainstream news. They found that, the “use of commercial media was associated with less knowledge in every domain and less community engagement and activism.” These findings reflect the normative functions of information exposure in the development of injunctive norms.  However, the will to act on one’s injunctive norms also requires identification with a community of like-minded individuals.  It was unclear in this study whether community engagement increased with exposure to alternative media.  In this study, as with a 2003 study of the values and attitudes of supporters and opponents of the war, it was found that opponents of the war generally had more egalitarian values and were much more supportive of collective actions (78%) than supporters of the war (41%).  Despite this apparent enthusiasm for collective action, as few as 21% had written a letter to a politician expressing their views and only 26% of opponents of the war had actually attended a rally.

the “use of commercial media was associated with less knowledge in every domain and less community engagement and activism”

 One of the interesting findings of Louis’ research was the negative correlation between perceptions of effectiveness and intentions to act in long-term activists or those strongly identified with a group compared to others. In other words, those who identified as activists did not measure the worth of taking action on the criteria of achieving an immediate end.  Indeed, only for people without group affiliations was effectiveness of action a decisive criterion for further involvement.  

Another important finding of Louis’ research was the extent to which actors perceived various kinds of actions as furthering the group’s goals.  The majority surveyed in a 2008-2009 study of Brisbane activists thought that tactics such as information dissemination, educating people, political lobbying and lawful protest actions were overwhelmingly positive for group goals; but a majority (98%) thought that unlawful protests had more costs than benefits; and that the group did not approve of such actions (88%); and that such actions would not influence or gain approval from political targets (96%).  This may call into question the value of unlawful tactics for group goals and group cohesiveness, especially as most groups seek to engage the approval of mainstream society. Indeed, in this, study the majority considered their groups to be mainstream (96%). It would be interesting to know if group identification was a factor in the 4% of participants who said they intended to take Non-Violent Direct Action and the degree to which direct actions could be meeting personal goals (such as anxiety-reduction or increasing sense of self efficacy).  

Louis identifies “changing identification in participants” as a critical factor in increasing the acceptance of activists’ arguments:

Onlookers may be more likely to accept collective actors’ criticisms of the status quo if the onlookers come to identify with the actors, which could be encouraged by collective actors’ rhetorical claims to a common identity, as in the anti-racist groups Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation… (or) when human rights campaigners wave national flags and sing the national anthem. (Louis, 2009: Predicting Activist Intentions Over Time pp. 740-749)

The importance of this research for activists is two-fold:  firstly it puts our intuitions about what does or doesn’t work on firm quantitative scientific grounding; secondly, it lights the way forwards to using social psychology to better community engagement and long-term activist commitment.   On this second point, Louis’ longitudinal study of sustained peace activism in Australia (2003, n=155) revealed some of the important differences between activists with waning commitment and those who remained committed. The demographic characteristics were unrepresentative of the general population in that the majority were female, anglo-Australian, non-religious, Greens voters with tertiary educations, representing the membership of over 45 organisations. Although participation declined in both group and non-group members over a two month period, the factors associated with activist behaviours included: a higher rate of monetary donations, a high group identity, an increasing group identity as time passed, history of past activism, perceptions of effectiveness of actions, declining stress levels, less strong identification with Australian identity, and higher estimates of risk relating to casualties in the war. Values that did not buffer against declining involvement included: egalitarianism and non-hierarchical values, stress unrelated to the war and family commitments.  

Louis and activist organisers in this study describe a cycle of participation (Diagram 2).

cycleAt a macro level, similar cycle of growth and dissipation has been identified by social theorist Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (1987) used by activists to understand and plan campaign strategy.  Likewise, Louis findings can be used to plan for increased motivation and retention of participants of collective action.  Here we bring individual and group psychology together to create a cohesive plan for social movement growth.

Using social identity and norm conflicts to create social change.

Louis outlines how social identity may be used to reinforce social change motives. The process, as described below, requires strategic interventions and careful framing of the issue by activists to evoke the injunctive norms that will trigger people to action:

  • increasing the sense of common identity between actors and audience: for example, evoking our common human identity and the moral outrage that breaching our human rights might evoke;
  • creating incidents of social disruption that “create a sense of instability for advantaged group members” (Louis 2009: 731). For example, riots or road blockades that create the perception that the status quo is threatened, creating anxiety and a desire to reconcile amongst the advantaged;
  • increasing the internal contradictions amongst the elites by highlighting conflict between group values (such as egalitarianism) and injunctive norms and the current practices of the group. This can lead to behavioural change;

Louis’ analysis points to the type of groups that may be the most effective at raising importance of an issue at the same time as discomfiting others to the degree that they may want change. She says a combination of “moderate and militant” are the most effective change agents as they have the urge and capacity to carry out disruptive “antinormative” actions that threaten the status quo at the same time as being able to capture the identification of the masses.  This is an irony, in that many activist groups struggle with the conflict between these two strategies:  the militant thinking the moderate are not active enough, while the moderate often distance themselves from the sometimes illegal and often socially disruptive actions of the militants.  It may be comforting for organisers to know that this simply reflects the tendencies in wider society.  If the movement is functioning, the key for the moderates to capitalise on the opportunities opened up by militant actions while presenting less militant opportunities for people to become part of the movement.  By the same token, it behooves direct action militants to appreciate the abilities of moderates to provide an avenue for the effect of their actions to go beyond the incident itself.  To the extent that militants focus their energies on de-legitimizing political opponents and destabilising the status quo, without attacking the legitimacy of their own moderate allies, more leverage for change may be created.

a combination of “moderate and militant” are the most effective change agents as they have the urge and capacity to carry out disruptive “antinormative” actions that threaten the status quo at the same time as being able to capture the identification of the masses

Louis points out that the factors that make a collective action successful are not well known and there is still much research to be done (2009: 741). Even in the face of almost two million people taking to the streets in Australia against our governments’ involvement in the war in Iraq, it is arguable that our close ties to US trade and politics, and our government’s strong identification with an elite group of world leaders set on war, that determined policy over the approbation of public opinion. As more and more Australian and US troops die in the ensuing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still opportunity for collective action to make the issue salient, increasing the possibilities for political change.  People will always feel the need to participate in collective actions when their norms are violated, and as agents of social change activists it is our role to facilitate their involvement in the social and political change that might occasion. A better understanding of that process is vital to this endeavour.

Kim Stewart, Friends of the Earth


Further reading:

Azjen, I. & Fishbein, M. (2010). Predicting and Changing Behaviour: The Reasoned Action Approach. New York: Psychology Press.

Hornsey, M. etal (2006). “Why Do People engage in Collective Action? Revisiting the Role of Perceived Effectiveness”. Journal of Applied Psychology. Pp 1701-1722. Blackwell Publishing.

Louis, W. (2009). “Collective Action – and Then What?” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 65, No. 4, pp 727-748. Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

Pateman, C. (1970) Participation and Democratic Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Louis, W. R. (2009). Predicting Activist Intentions Over Time (Longitudinal survey, N=42).

Louis, W. R. (2006). Community Identities and Environmental Attitudes and Actions – Study 2 (Experimental study, N=216).

Louis, W. R. (2006). Community Identities and Environmental Attitudes and Actions (Correlational study, N=96).

Louis, W. R. (2006). Media use and political knowledge and activism (Longitudinal correlational study, N=221).

Louis, W. R. (2005). “What’s going on in Iraq?”: Conflict frames and attitudes and actions re the war in 2005 (Field experiment, N = 429).

Louis, W. R. (2005). Ingroup and outgroup injunctive and descriptive norms for political action (Lab study, N=238).

Louis, W. R. (2005). Injunctive and descriptive group norms for political action (Lab study, N=185).

Louis, W. R. (2004). Views on the war in Iraq as political attitudes (Political affiliation and war attitudes, N = 186).

Louis, W. R. (2004). “What’s going on in Iraq?”: Conflict frames and attitudes and actions re the war in 2004. (Replication of 2003 study, N=213).

Louis, W. R. (2003). Media use and political knowledge and activism (N = 45).

Louis, W. R. (2003). Views on the War in Iraq as political attitudes (Political affiliation and war attitudes, N = 416).

Louis, W. R. (2003). Ordinary Australians and the War (Passive vs active war opposition and support, N = 276).

Louis, W. R. (2003). Views on the War in Iraq (Responsibility attributions and war attitudes, N = 40).

Louis, W. R. (2003). Australian and American attitudes (Lab study of national norms and war attitudes, N = 72).

Louis, W. R. (2003). “What’s Going on in Iraq?” (Conflict frames and war attitudes and action, N = 149)

Louis, W. R. (2003). War Supporters’ and Opponents’ Norms for Political Letter Writing (Lab study of opinion group norms and political behaviour, N=72)

Louis, W. R. (2003). Activists’ perceptions of the goals of the peace movement (Longitudal field study of peace activism, N=151)

Louis, W. R. (2003). Sustained vs Eroding Commitment in Peace Activism (Longitudal field study of peace activism, N=151) — Analyses from this study are also presented here.


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