New research sheds light on how protesters reacted in the face of failure

New research provides experimental evidence that failure leads to “somewhat contradictory reactions” among political protesters. The failure of a protest movement not only leads to greater support for more radical tactics, it also appears to lead to greater disidentification with the movement. The new findings were published in social psychology and personality science.

“My interest in this research comes from two directions – first, being an activist myself, it struck me that activism is often so fruitless in the short term and requires patience and perseverance over years,” said study author Winnifred Louis, a professor at the University of Queensland and director of the Social Change Lab.

“I was startled that while many studies look at the motivation for collective action and activism at any given point in time, so few look at what drives social change, let alone how people react when an event or campaign fails .”

“The other motivation for researching the topic was my desire to better understand radicalization and violence,” Louis explained. “There has been an argument from case studies that the failure of conventional forms of action is a spur to radicalization, with ample anecdotal support as well as anecdotal refutation. Our research wanted to test this systematically.”

In the study, 1,663 participants were randomly assigned to a scenario in which they participated in a political protest that either succeeded or failed and involved either conventional tactics or radical tactics.

Participants included American opponents of shale gas exploration, Australian opponents of coalbed gas exploration, American opponents of shelter towns, Australian opponents of incarceration, American opponents of the “travel ban” policy restricting immigration, American opponents of abortion, Irish opponents of abortion, Irish pro-abortionists Right to Abortion, American Marriage Equality Advocates and Australian Marriage Equality Advocates.

Louis and her colleagues found that those who read about the failure of their protest tended to later have greater intentions to engage in radical action. “We found this to be true when we looked at experiments on a range of social movements and controversies, from pro-abortion and immigration rights to environmental and anti-immigration protests,” she told PsyPost.

In other words, compared to those who read about their protest’s success, participants who read about their protest’s failure were more likely to agree with statements such as “I intend to participate in protests by chaining myself to farm implements.” .

However, Louis noted that “the effect size for the error effect is small and we found significant variability between contexts. This means that in some cases the failures did not trigger radicalization and we have not consistently identified the moderating factors, although we speculate that some important factors include expectation management, failure guilt, and social norms, among others. ”

Additionally, the failure of conventional protests has been associated with increased innovation. That is, participants who read about the failures of traditional protests tended to be better at devising new strategies to persuade their local government to support their cause. The failure of radical protests, on the other hand, has been associated with diminished innovation.

Interestingly, protest failure was also associated with higher disidentification (“I am unhappy to be a member of this group”) but also with higher energization (“We need to redouble our efforts”).

“The most important nuance beyond the headline is that we found that failure not only has a radicalizing effect – compared to success, failure increases the diversity of tactics and trajectories of the collective actors in a movement,” Louis explained. “Some activists disidentify after failure – they pack their bags and go home. Others double down on what they do and increase energy levels. A third group innovates and changes tactics: we believe both radicalization and deradicalization stem from these innovators.”

“Predicting who will take which path is a key direction for future research; We hope people will join us in investigating this,” Louis said. “We are also interested in investigating the dynamics of permanent failures and gridlock.”

“One of our team’s research interests lies in the feedback loop between protester radicalization and the unresponsiveness of authorities – how the unresponsive authorities reduce protesters’ support for the rule of law and conventional tactics, further polarizing policymakers or governments by repelling protesters . Inquiries and repressive measures,” added Louis.

“We found evidence in simulation studies to support these fears: support for democracy among protesters was high overall, but began to erode as conventional actions were consistently ignored. Another important direction for future research is to examine what makes policymakers and leaders feel legitimate to ignore opposition and protests.”

The study “Failure Leads Protest Movements to Support More Radical Tactics” was authored by Winnifred R. Louis, Morgana Lizzio-Wilson, Mikaela Cibich, Craig McGarty, Emma F. Thomas, Catherine E. Amiot, Nathan Weber, Joshua Rhee, Grace Davies , Timothy Rach, Syasya Goh, Zoe McMaster, Orla Muldoon, Naoimh Howe and Fathali Moghaddam.

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