Nation, World + Society

How to harness individual outrage for lasting social change

Practical guidance on enlisting, mobilizing and continually engaging like-minded people

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Social activism
Jerry Kiesewetter/Unsplash

Activism has made a comeback in America, with organized protesters demonstrating a level of zeal and outrage rarely seen here since the 1960s. Students are marching for gun restrictions, gun rights supporters are rallying in opposition, teachers are closing school districts over funding, and the #MeToo movement is routinely outing workplace sex offenders. Protections for children of immigrants, higher hourly wages, abortion legislation, clean energy policies — these and other social causes are uniting millions of Americans in 2018.

What drives individuals to come together in these often selfless, sometimes risky acts of collective campaigning? To get these movements going for lasting social change, large numbers of individuals must unite publicly, with strangers, over grievances that may not even affect them directly. Organizers must tap into the motivations that convince people to take such actions for the greater good.

A review of literature on the subject might help actuate these causes, whatever their issues or slants. "Social Mobilization" by Harvard's Todd Rogers and UCLA Anderson's Noah Goldstein and Craig Fox appears in the 2018 edition of Annual Review of Psychology. With evidence from more than 100 research papers involving field studies from behavioral sciences, the paper identifies key principles used in effective movements. The authors cite examples of organizations that successfully applied these principles to recent causes, such as get-out-the-vote and energy conservation campaigns.

The result is a sort of field guide to bringing people together, and keeping them engaged, for a common cause. As organizers seek to make outraged masses effective reformers for gun restrictions, a $15 minimum wage or any other hard social change, this article offers practical guidance.

Why does anyone put time, energy and emotion into a social cause? On an individual basis, the risk or inconvenience of joining a movement often outweighs the personal benefit from whatever change is sought. For example, many Egyptian citizens protesting for government overthrow in 2011 were leading comfortable lives under the current regime, but they risked jail time or worse by rallying. Toyota Prius buyers in 2007 paid up for an unproven hybrid electric car, even as reviewers voiced concerns about its substandard power and potentially low resale value. Raising money to feed hungry people on another continent does little or nothing for the individual who solicits donations for the cause.

Yet the changes these people hoped to see — fairer government, a healthier environment, an end to starvation — could only be achieved by many individuals' acting at least somewhat selflessly for the collective good. Recycling, eating vegan, boycotting a retailer, voting in government elections and many other conscientious activities are essentially meaningless when practiced individually, but they benefit the collective when performed en masse. To make student speeches and public rallies ultimately effective for social change, organizers must continually motivate many individuals to take personally costly actions for the greater cause.

Rogers, Goldstein and Fox distill evidence from field studies on topics that range from voter mobilization to energy conservation to promoting charitable giving in order to identify strategies most likely to elicit these altruistic commitments. They summarize their findings into five organizing strategies — they call them "social mobilization principles" — that make social change efforts particularly effective.

The full article appears in UCLA Anderson Review.

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