Activism and Human Psychology

Given the recent focus on harmful attempts at law like SOPA and ACTA, I’ve spent more than the usual amount of time, lately, thinking on why it’s so hard to build up a stable, strong political movement and I’ve narrowed it down to two fundamental psychological problems that activists often don’t seem to address:

First, that humans are creatures of habit, yet activists seem obsessed with converting the general public to their cause. I can’t count the number of causes I’ve sympathized with but lost interest in because the only option they offered me for participation was, in essence, a firehose of all the day-to-day details of their fight. As an activist, you need to accept that not everyone can be made to care about your cause as deeply as you do. Provide services for all levels of engagement, so people who just want to be notified of new petitions and phone-call campaigns won’t be overwhelmed while those who want more can easily step up to the next level of involvement.

Second, that we instinctively desire, on an emotional level, a clear victory which our opponent acknowledges… something which activism doesn’t provide. Activists struggle against parties who will never concede defeat and we must find ways to help people focus on incremental victories and long-term trends, rather than dwelling on the occasional inevitable loss or being demoralized by the endless nature of the struggle against selfishness.

Finally, while not a point about psychology in and of itself, the adage “It’s always darkest before the dawn” does characterize activism quite well. Opponents never fight harder than when they’re desperate and, in the case of the current battle against online censorship, SOPA and ACTA will quite probably, if defeated, prove to be the turning point in the fight for freedom from the old media oligarchies.

Update: Though, as Cory Doctorow points out, that’s just a fragment of the issue. The real fight is for the right to use our computer-based technologies without government-mandated spyware locking down what we can and can’t do with them.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Activism and Human Psychology by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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1 Response to Activism and Human Psychology

  1. Jasper says:

    You make very valid & thoughtful points. The theme of activism is a very complex and often convoluted one. There are so many potential factors that can screw things up!
    I think that one other really significant aspect of what you’re describing is the fact that people are very preoccupied by a great number of events, hopes & fears, and the powers that be have become quite very adept at minimizing the degree that these ‘problem issues’ actually affect our lives in a detrimental way. And that’s all most people really care about. They know that if they tighten the neuse too quickly, too much: people will retaliate!
    And by the time enough people realize what’s going on to be able to make a difference, it has become much more difficult & complicated to resolve.

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