Why We March: Insights from Social and Behavioral Science

This is not a political post. Really.

On January 21, 2017, I had the pleasure of participating in the Women’s March on Washington with one of my dear friends from college. We each had our personal reasons for marching, as did the other hundreds of thousands of Americans who also marched that day in DC and around the country. This was evident in the myriad topics that were highlighted across signs, banners, and chants that we saw and spoke that day.

The experience was enjoyable, moving, and empowering for me personally. Being a social marketing advocate, it also inspired me to consider what social and behavioral science can tell us about why we march, and why protest marches can be a successful tool in social change.

My exploration led me to a fascinating article—“The Social Psychology of Protest”—by Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Burt Klandermans at VU University in the Netherlands. Van Stekelenburg and Klandermans identified five concepts, each of which is interwoven, to explain why people protest:

  1. Grievances, such as feelings of unfair inequality, relative deprivation, and injustice. When individuals experience personal and group grievances, they are more likely to participate in a protest.
  2. Efficacy, meaning the belief that an individual has about her, his, or the group’s ability to affect change through protest. As efficacy increases, so does an individual’s likelihood of participating.
  3. Identification, in that the more people identify with a group, the more they are inclined to protest on behalf of that group.
  4. Emotions, such as anger (among those feeling deprived) or guilt (among those struggling with feeling a self-perceived advantage over the group being deprived), which can drive people to protest.
  5. Social embeddedness, the concept that individual grievances and emotions are often extended within social networks, which translates into a higher rate of participation in protest actions among those whose friends or acquaintances are already active within a movement.

Based on conversations with women at the march, as well as my “analysis” of the posters I saw, I can confidently say that I saw all five of these concepts at play that day.

Whether or not the organizers and advocates who participated in the march did so deliberately, they effectively utilized a number of other behavioral science principles to encourage participation and ongoing engagement in the movement. For example:

  • Chunking, or encouraging small, individual tasks, like calling one’s Congressional representatives to voice an opinion;
  • Modeling the power of commitment, or making a public pledge to a cause or action, by inviting marchers to join organizing meetings the next day; and
  • Framing, or offering new ways to look at an issue, such as through the powerful storytelling of many speakers who took the stage at the march.

Looking a bit deeper into my own motivations for participating, I was definitely influenced by a key factor that is often discussed in the behavioral economics literature: loss aversion.

From my perspective, leading up to and during the march, women’s advocates did an outstanding job of framing key issues—from reproductive rights to equality to climate change—in ways that forced me to consider the impact that I and those I love would experience if the rights we have today on those issues were lost.

Did you participate in the Women’s March or another form of peaceful protest in recent months? Did any of these (or other) social and behavioral science concepts play a role in your actions?

Jennifer Wayman, M.H.S.
President and CEO