New research sheds light on the divergent responses of protesters in the face of failure

New research provides experimental evidence that failure leads to “somewhat contradictory responses” among political protestors. The failure of a protest movement doesn’t just result in greater support for more radical tactics, it also appears to produce higher disidentification with the movement. The new findings have been published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“My interest in this research comes from two directions – first, I’m myself an activist and I was struck by the fact that activism is often so fruitless in the short term, calling for patience and persistence over years of work,” said study author Winnifred Louis, a professor at the University of Queensland and director of the Social Change Lab.

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

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

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

The participants included American opponents of shale gas mining, Australian opponents of coal seam gas mining, American opponents of sanctuary cities, Australian opponents of mandatory detention, American opponents of “travel ban” policies to restrict immigration, American opponents of abortion, Irish opponents of abortion, Irish supporters of abortion rights, American supporters of marriage equality, and Australian supporters of marriage equality.

Louis and her colleagues found that those who read about their protest failing tended to subsequently have higher intentions to engage in radical action. “We found this was true, looking in experiments across a range of social movements and controversies, from abortion and immigration rights to environmentalism and anti-immigration protests,” she told PsyPost.

In other words, compared to those who read about their protest succeeding, participants who read about their protest failing were more likely to agree with statements such as “I intend to join protests chaining myself to farming equipment.”

However, Louis noted that “the effect size for the failure effect is small, and we found significant variability across contexts. That means that in some cases the failures didn’t prompt radicalization, and we didn’t identify the moderating factors consistently, although we speculate that some important factors include expectation management, who the failure is blamed on, and social norms, among others.”

In addition, the failure of conventional protests was associated with heightened innovation. That is, participants who read about conventional protests failing tended to be better at generating new strategies to convince their local government to support their cause. The failure of radical protests, on the other hand, was associated with reduced innovation.

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

“The most important nuance beyond the headline is that we found that failure doesn’t just have one 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 up their bags and go home. Others double down on what they were doing and increase the energy level. A third group innovate and change tactics: we think both radicalization and deradicalization stem from these innovators.”

“Predicting who goes down which path is a key direction for future research; we hope people will join us to look into this,” Louis said. “We are also interested in examining the dynamics of persistent failure and gridlock.”

“One of our team’s research interests is in the feedback loop between the radicalization of protesters and authorities’ unresponsiveness – how unresponsive authorities decrease protesters’ support for the rule of law and conventional tactics, which further polarizes policy-makers or governments towards rejecting protesters’ requests, and repressive measures,” Louis added.

“We found evidence to support these fears in simulation studies: support for democracy among protesters was high overall, but started to erode when conventional actions were consistently ignored. Looking at what leads policy-makers and leaders to feel it’s legitimate to ignore opposition and protests is another important direction of future research.”

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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