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What Makes an Activist?

What leads someone to become an activist? Research shows parental beliefs, individual personality and a sense of community can all prime someone for a role as an activist.

We all recognize the protestors among us: neighbors who circulate petitions for clean-air bills, animal-rights groups in the subway harassing elderly women in fur coats, students calling for peace. We often share their convictions, but voice them in a whisper. So what distinguishes the demonstrators from the do-nothings?

The fact is, activists choose to take up causes for a wide variety of reasons—some not as straightforward as they might seem.

To start, take a look at Mom and Dad. Parental modeling can play a significant role in shaping future activists, according to Lauren Duncan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Smith College who has studied activism. She found that students with a parent who fought in Vietnam were much more likely to protest against the 1991 Gulf War than those whose parents were not war veterans. "Parents teach their kids [what they believe are] appropriate ways to respond to particular situations," explains Duncan.

Personality also helps prime protesters. Those who find personal meaning in current events are inclined to speak out for a cause, according to Duncan. She is currently researching why some people feel emotionally drained after a newscast while others can turn off the TV set without qualms.

Individuals are more likely to feel a personal connection if they see themselves as part of the community affected by an issue, says Debra Mashek, Ph.D., a research fellow at George Mason University, who specializes in "moral" emotions. Millions of women embraced this sense of collective identity during the women's rights movement, for example.

Some psychologists say that most acts of altruism-defined as devotion to the interests of others—actually spring from a desire to help oneself. Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D., chair of the department of counseling at California State University at Fullerton and author of Doing Good: Passion and Commitment for Helping Others, states that altruism can be reciprocal: Humans act benevolently for conscious or unconscious gain.

"Theorists talk about it in terms of cost-benefit analysis, as if it's a rational thing," he says. "We don't do anything selflessly; we do it because it'll come back to us later—someone will owe us something down the line or it will increase our status in the community."

Does that mean altruistic acts are inherently selfish?

"Selfish is one way to say it, but it takes on such a negative connotation," says Mashek. "If I am an anti-war protestor, then by standing up for what I think is right I'm helping the world, because the world is my community, and in so doing, I help myself."

We would all be better off today if we could broaden our sense of community, according to Kottler. He had returned from researching bushmen in the African nation of Namibia, where tribe members consider all material possessions communal. "They don't understand 'This is mine,' because they have such a strong sense of community," he says. "In America, our kin live all over the place and this leads to a lack of responsibility for taking care of other people."

Kottler subscribes to a theory of empathic arousal, which explains good acts as motivated by the intrinsic psychological and physiological rewards they provide the doer. "There's a helper's high: When you extend yourself to someone else, it produces an altered state of consciousness. You feel aroused, you feel wonderful, you float on air."

Actively speaking out for others can generate this feeling, says Kottler. "People are totally preoccupied with themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world," he says. "The more you can get out of yourself and reach out to others, the more meaningful and satisfying life can be."