Why Do People Protest?

Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His research, in part, examines the way our ability to make comparisons affects cognitive processing and decision-making.

The increased number of organized protests in our communities has led to much discussion and research around the question: What motivates people to protest? Art Markman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been taking a look at this trend through a psychological lens.

“I’ve been really interested over the years in motivation and trying to understand the factors that motivate people,” Markman says. “Those motivations affect both people’s performance in tasks, as well as the evaluation of that performance.”

His interest in motivation led him to write several articles on the topic, drawing on other people’s research and trying to bring more psychology into the discussion.

He found that people who have an issue with something that is important to them rarely start with violent protests first. “What they normally do is work through other channels to try to resolve the issue that they’re having,” says Markman.

When this doesn’t provide a satisfactory outcome, they will next try protesting in a public, but inoffensive way. “You’ll see people holding signs or writing articles or doing things that are outside of, say, the legal system, but still within the general bounds of what we consider to be civil discourse,” he says.

If this does not work, the next step is getting people’s attention by offending them. Markman says the psychological mechanism for offending others is to transgress their so-called “protected values.”

Kneeling for the national anthem, for example, would transgress the protected values of some people. It’s an action intended to get their attention, and it’s not a surprise that people take offense.

And the offense is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. When writing about the NFL protests, Markman also looked at the “free speech” protests taking place at the University of California in Berkeley. These protests offended many on the more liberal end of the spectrum.

As a result, when people discuss protesting, they focus on the fact that they were offended by the actions, as opposed to focusing on the actual issues.

“The trick is to transition from ‘OK, this protest caused offense’ to ‘what’s the issue that’s at stake here?’” he says. “This is a good time to start paying attention and having discussions about core issues related to protest, rather than getting sidetracked over the message.”

When discussions on these topics come up, says Markman, everyone – including those in the media and those on social media - has a responsibility to remember the debate is not about the offensiveness of the protest, but rather about the actual issues.

One thing that surprised Markman is the trade-offs people often make when thinking about their protected values.

For example, during the NFL protests, in addition to the kneeling football players, there were pictures circulating of musicians and celebrities wearing clothing featuring the American flag. These, however, were not seen as offensive.

“There are situations when things aren’t made explicit, where we do accept some trade-offs of those values,” Markman says.

“If there were a simple way of changing the system, we would have done it by now,” he concludes. “We are dealing with very difficult issues.”

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