New Research Explores Why Americans Participate in Collective Action, Even in Face of Danger

Protestors are willing to risk their lives in the name of social action because they believe it is the best way to bring about change, according to a new study by Wing Yi Chan of psychology.

The Journal of Applied Social Psychology recently accepted the study, led by Chan and her colleague G. Scott Morgan of Drew University.

Their study explored the psychological processes that underlie collective action specifically that of protestors and supporters of the Occupy Movement, a national social movement against social and economic inequality. The researchers focused on the wings of the movement based in Atlanta (Occupy Atlanta) and New York City (Occupy Wall Street).

Chan and Morgan, conducting the two parallel studies in Atlanta and New York City respectively, assessed the influence of predictors such as identity, efficacy and anger on individual’s willingness to join and/or support collective action movements.

“Conducting my research in Atlanta was great because of the history of social movements and the genuine interest here,” she said. “Because of Georgia State’s interest in understanding urban environments, my research on collective action in urban settings aligned directly with the university’s goals.”

Chan conducted her research right outside of her Urban Life office at Georgia State’s neighboring park, Woodruff Park. 

She collected data at Woodruff Park for two weeks, issuing surveys and observing the daily actions of members of the movement.

“I’ve done a lot of data collection in communities, but the Woodruff Park experience was definitely one of the more interesting ones,” Chan said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But, I found that the participants were very open to doing a survey. Even in my observation, I could tell that they really believed their participation would make a change.”

The researchers found that participants’ identification with the Occupy Movement strongly influenced their beliefs on the movement’s effectiveness and ability to make a difference. The research also found that emotions predicted individual’s willingness to engage in non-costly collective action, while problem-focused strategies motivated individuals’ willingness to continue collective action in spite of costly collective action and undesirable outcomes.

“The media portrays the movement as very angry, but in our research I found that it’s much more than that,” she said. “The movement isn’t just an emotional one. People are hopeful. There is logic and organization behind it.”

Chan hopes that the findings provide more insight into the social science behind collective action and the factors that motivate people to participate in long-term social action regardless of consequence.

“We know that it takes more than one week to see social change,” Chan said. “And it’s important that we understand what motivates these people to give up something important such as their job and their well-being and sustain participation in social movement.”