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Why We Protest

The Psychology Behind the Occupy Movement

Having just visited Cincinnati and Washington DC, two of the many cities in the US where people have taken to the streets to protest against corporate greed and political cronyism, I wonder what lessons we can learn from crowd psychology about the Occupy Wall Street movement and similar social movements that are popping up across the US and Europe. Why do people take part in these mass protests, and why do they spread like a wildfire? Why do these protests sometimes end violently and will they survive the winter? Here are five claims - some wrong and some right -- about crowd behavior which give us an insight into the collective protest.

# 1 The Crowd is Irrational

That's s a terrible misunderstanding. The French social psychologist Gustav Le Bon wrote the first book on crowd behavior more than a century ago, in 1895. He argued - wrongly - that once people are part of an anonymous crowd, they cannot think logically anymore and become hysterical. That is plainly untrue. If you look at the Occupy movement through the lens of modern social psychology what you see a large group of angry people who are able to organize themselves quickly and efficiently to make a huge political impact. Far from being hysterical, they are smart and determined. Mass behavior is often just a clever way to get things done. The famous "wisdom of crowds" effect shows that large groups are often better than experts in solving various problems, ranging from predicting the outcome of elections to solving collective action problems.

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#2 The Crowd is Poor

People join mass protests to achieve personal goals that they are otherwise unable to realize, for example, getting jobs, affordable housing, or getting rid of their debts. But what counts in terms of people's motivations to protest is not so much their absolute poverty level but their relative poverty, that is, compared to their peers. Sociologists have called this relative deprivation and it is an important predictor of social unrest. The protesters across the US and Europe generally have a better life style than the average citizen of an African or South American city. But that's not what counts to them. These protesters feel they are entitled to the same lifestyle as the people that they share their cities with, the workers, bankers, and the politicians.

Here is a simple illustration of the importance of relative status. Economist Bob Frank asked people "Do you prefer to live in a house of 150 square meters in a street full of houses of 200 square meters or a 100 square meter house in a street with all 50 square meter homes." Although in absolute terms the first option is much better, most people went for the second option because it improved their relative standing. Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to our relative standing and any government should take this very seriously if they allow wealth differences to expand.

In his recent book "The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better" the British sociologist Richard Wilkinson (with Kate Pickett) provide a lot of statistics to show that the more unequal a society, the more stressed and unhappy people are and the more chance of social unrest. It is not surprising that the Occupy protests started in the US where the income gap between the rich and poor is much greater than anywhere else in the Western world.

#3: All Crowd Members are Alike

At first sight, the Occupy movement consists of a motley crew of individuals who appear not to have too much in common. The demonstrators I saw in Cincinnati and Washington were men and women, young and old, whites and blacks, employed and unemployed. At the square in Cincinnati I saw well-dressed man in his forties carrying a sign reading "dissent is the ultimate act of patriotism." Yet when there is a common enemy such as the Wall Street bankers or politicians a new crowd identity quickly forms and they start to behave and act as a single entity. Social psychologist Naomi Ellemers showed in a classic laboratory experiment that when individuals find themselves in a low status group but their opportunities to move into a higher status group are blocked, they start to identify more strongly with their low status ingroup and do all they can to overthrow the high status group. At the same time, mass protests quickly fall apart once people's goals are reached

#4 The Crowd Has No Face

There are no leaders, at least not any clear ones in the Occupy movement. That's both a strength and weakness of the crowd. By operating without any clear structure or hierarchy they are very difficult to control by the police but at the same time it may be difficult to make a political impact without any clear leaders? Yet there are most definitely informal leaders in the crowd. Such people usually well-connected in their social network and so they are able to rapidly mobilize their peer group to join the crowd. We can argue that the Occupy movement - just like the Arab Spring and London summer protests -- are the first Twitter and Facebook movements. Because of the power of these new social media technologies to quickly mobilize and link social networks such movements may gain pace very quickly.

#5 The Long Hot Summer Protests

Much research has been done into the relationship between heat and crowd violence in many places around the world. Social psychologists Anderson and Bushman have written about it extensively. They compared the amount of public violence across various U.S. cities and showed that violence increases with temperature. The Italian scholar Lombroso showed a century earlier that political protests in Europe were more likely to take place in the summer months. An obvious explanation is that nice weather attracts a lot of people to the streets and that strengthens the crowd. The timing of the Occupy movement in the late summer is therefore no coincidence. Whether it lasts through the cold and dark winter remains to be seen.

 

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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