The Psychology That Explains Your Reaction to Mass Protests

In the face of escalating protests, what factors determine how you feel?

Posted Jun 03, 2020

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Since late May, Black Lives Matter and other social change movements have been mobilizing in response to horrific footage from Minneapolis showing the killing of yet another black person — George Floyd — by a white police officer. BLM released a powerfully worded petition stating, “George Floyd’s violent death was a breaking point — an all too familiar reminder that, for Black people, law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives. They often threaten and take them.”

Most of the protest actions to date have been disciplined and peaceful. Many have been creative, using art as an outlet for grief and rage, as a vehicle to powerfully spread new ideas and emotions, and as a teaching tool.

Some police officers chose to join the protesters, marching alongside them, taking a knee, or sitting down to hear concerns and voice their own disgust with brutal and racist policing. But, predictably, a great deal of attention seems to be going to the small percentage of protests that feature vandalism and looting. There may be an editorial decision among some media outlets to cover riots because they’re more exciting and attention-grabbing.

Obvious factors like what media we consume, our personal racial experience, our politics, and our beliefs about race and policing all play important roles in how we feel about the protests. There could be other psychological factors at play, too, especially among those disproportionately focusing on rioting.

As I wrote in my book, “We suffer from an attention bias (we notice something vivid like a bomb going off far more than the innumerable times and places where a bomb doesn’t go off) and the availability heuristic (we remember these vivid occurrences and rely on them to make decisions later). Research from the UK and Luxembourg suggests that when the topic is scary, we pass along stories in particularly biased ways that keep making them scarier and scarier. Psychologist Thomas Hills explains, ‘The more people share information, the more negative it becomes, the further it gets from the facts, and the more resistant it becomes to correction.’” That sounds a lot like what's happening on social media now, as stories about rioting are shared and amplified.

Previous academic work suggests that when protest movements are perceived to be violent, they lose credibility. This has been observed in real time: A recent movement in Barcelona lost public sympathy following a riot attributed to it. Unsurprisingly, this pattern depended on how much people supported the movement initially. Those who were opposed, indifferent, or weakly supportive all had lowered opinions after the riot. It was only people who were already quite supportive who accepted the movement’s logic for why it had rioted.

Destruction in support of social change is polarizing. It further galvanizes some of those who were already committed while driving away others who were on the fence and might have become allies.

One survey experiment conducted online might help explain why this is. It found that violence by “an antiracist group against white nationalists” led to less support for the antiracists, apparently because they were perceived to have lost the moral high ground. Previous research has found this as well: Peaceful social change actions gain more legitimacy in the public’s eyes, and so tend to win more public support.

Importantly, movements using even a bit of violence make many in the general public feel unsafe (whether or not this feeling is justified). So the point isn’t whether or not property destruction or violence are morally justified; what’s more important to the success of social change movements is how they make people feel. Because of the bad publicity and safety concerns they create, violent campaigns can shift public opinion from sympathy about the issues of injustice to a desire for “law and order.” One study suggests this may affect not only our sympathies, but even our voting patterns.

Activist Robert Levering notes another common misconception: that governments will only take protests seriously if the protesters show their power through destroying property or carrying guns. He asserts that in fact, “Governments invariably welcome violent protests. With soldiers, police, and huge arsenals of weapons, they know how to deal with any form of violence. They also infiltrate protest groups with provocateurs to stir up violence.”

Indeed, whether from paid infiltrators or real activists, movements that reject property destruction and violence have long had to figure out how to deal with people who don't. Many black activists leading the current protests have called on white people to stop using this moment as an excuse to break things. Tay Anderson, who helped organize protests in Denver, says, “When we aren't asking people to destroy things in our name and people do it anyway, we know that this is something that's going to blow back on us.”