Do Extreme Protests Affect the Popular Support of a Movement?
Research suggests that extreme protests can limit support.
Posted Feb 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Key Points: Advocates for societal change generally follow a trajectory of individual advocacy, followed by larger demonstrations and, if progress is not made, extreme social disruptions leading to vandalism and sometimes violence. New research points to a paradox, however: While it is difficult to gain attention without extreme actions, those very actions may decrease popular support for a cause, even among sympathetic observers.
When a group wants a societal change, it generally starts by working within the system—writing to legislators, for example, and trying to get laws passed. If those efforts are not successful, they may escalate to protests like rallies or protests in key locations. If people in power are still not swayed, the protests may get more extreme including social disruptions (like strikes, blocking traffic or blocking entrance to a facility), vandalism, or even violence. The aim of these protests is both to build awareness of the cause in a broader audience and to pressure people in power to make a change.
Protests can have many different influences. For example, in the summer of 2020, widespread protests following the killing of George Floyd by police led some communities to reduce funding to police departments, caused some brands based on African American stereotypes (such as Aunt Jemima) to rebrand, and even led some sports teams (like the Washington Redskins) to change their names.
But how do protests affect popular support of a movement? In particular, when protests get more extreme by causing social disruption or leading to violence, does that increase or decrease support among the public? This question was explored in a paper in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, and Chloe Kovacheff.
These researchers did a series of six experiments in which they described protests to participants. Across studies, the protests reflected causes typically supported by liberals in the United States (like Black Lives Matter or animal rights) as well as those typically supported by conservatives (like abortion rights and the right to carry firearms). The descriptions of the protests were varied so that they were either mild (like a protest rally) or more extreme (blocking the entrance to an abortion facility while shouting at arriving patients, or vandalizing an animal testing facility and setting the animals free).
Across studies, the researchers measured support for the movement connected to the protest. The general result is that people were less supportive of a movement and less willing to join when the protests were extreme than when they were less extreme. This effect held both for people whose politics were generally in support of the movement as well as for those whose politics were generally opposed to the movement.
Some of the studies also gathered more measurements to assess a complex explanation for this effect. These studies provided support for the idea that support for the cause decreased because people viewed the extreme protest as more immoral than the moderate protest, which led to a decrease in people’s emotional connection to the cause, which then led to a decrease in the degree to which people identified with the protesters. This decrease in identification with the protesters was then related to the lower level of support for the cause when the protest was extreme than when it was moderate.
These findings highlight a double-edged sword for protest movements: Often, it is difficult to gain the attention of people in power without doing something extreme. These extreme efforts, though, may decrease popular support for the cause—even among people who would ordinarily be supportive of the movement.
This work suggests that protest organizers need to be mindful of their goal with a particular set of protests. Rallies and marches can garner widespread popular support, but may not have an impact on people in power. More extreme actions may influence people in power, but temper popular support.
Finally, a limitation of the present studies is that they focus primarily on the immediate influence of a protest on people’s beliefs and support. In the moment, a more extreme protest can decrease popular support for a movement. However, significant change as a result of protests may lead to a re-evaluation of those protests over time. For example, extreme protests during the civil rights era in the United States in the 1960s may have decreased popular support for the movement at the time. But the civil rights legislation sparked by these protests has led modern society to think of these protests as having been a necessary, important, and justified part of the struggle for civil rights. More research will have to explore how the impact of extreme protests may influence how they are viewed when looking back on them.
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2020). The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1086–1111. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000230