Being angry or becoming angry? How a dynamic change in emotion can predict collective action
By Laura Nesbitt (University of Exeter, the United Kingdom).
It is safe to say that 2016 was quite a momentous year in politics, with the refugee crisis in Europe, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. Following these events, large numbers of people have been prompted to engage in collective action. In the UK alone, large numbers of people have attended women’s marches, anti-fascism demonstrations, and taken part in a campaign to take the British Government to court over Brexit proceedings. The question then is, why now? What happened to these individuals that motivated them to engage in collective action during this time?
Past research has shed light on the question of why people may engage in collective action, by showing that emotions such as guilt, empathy, anger and moral outrage can be powerful predictors of collective action (e.g., Thomas, McGarty & Mavor, 2009). In turn, these emotional reactions are often predicted by group-based appraisals such as illegitimacy (i.e., thinking that a situation is unfair), and collective efficacy (i.e., the belief that groups of people can do something about it; e.g., Mackie, Devos & Smith, 2000; van Zomeren & Postmes, 2008; van Zomeren, Spears, Fischer & Leach, 2004).
Collective action has also been looked at more specifically from a political point of view, by asking why people become engaged in action even when they are not directly affected by an issue, as in the political solidarity model of social change (Subašić, Reynolds & Turner, 2008). This theory states that social change involves a challenge to the status quo, and for real change to occur a wider audience needs to be mobilised. Political solidarity is the process by which the silent majority challenges authority in solidarity with a minority. This can be illustrated by current events when people from all backgrounds are protesting Donald Trump’s travel bans. Although the ban would not necessarily affect these protesters directly, they had been motivated to protest in solidarity with those it did effect.
While previous research has been vital in our understanding of why people come to be engaged in collective action, there are still pieces missing from the puzzle; when and how does this happen? What is the process through which an individual becomes active in support of a social issue, even if they are not directly affected by it? In our research, we suggested that this is best viewed as a dynamic process of change in which, at some point, an individual or group transitions from being inactive to active (Livingstone, 2014). In contrast, prior research has largely analysed differences between individuals in key predictors of action: for example, person A is more likely to act as they are angrier at one point in time, compared to person B. What this does not tell us however, is about the journey that led person A to becoming angry, and what role this change had on their inclinations to take action.
In order to address these questions of when and how people become engaged in collective action, we carried out research which consisted of a longitudinal experiment with three time points over three weeks, with an intervention at the second time point. We measured participant’s emotions, appraisals and action intentions towards UK Government policy on welfare cuts and the treatment of disadvantaged groups. The intervention at time two consisted of a video about the impact of welfare cuts, and was aimed at eliciting strong emotional reactions in the experimental group, in contrast to a control group who saw a neutral video. This allowed us to examine whether changes in emotions and appraisals in response to the video, would predict changes in participants’ intentions to take action against welfare cuts in solidarity with those who have been affected by them.
To be able to examine these changes, we used a novel statistical technique in social psychology: dynamic mediation. This allowed us to examine how changes in one variable (i.e., emotion) can lead to changes in another (i.e., action intentions). Whereas standard mediation would examine whether levels of emotion at one time point could predict action intentions, dynamic mediation examines whether changes in emotion between time points can predict changes in action intentions.
In our study, we found exactly this pattern of change in emotion predicting change in action intentions. Increased anger between the first and second time point for people who had seen the emotive video, predicted a change in action intentions between first and third time point. This indicates that a change in emotion can be predictive of change in action intentions over time. In other words, rather than simply showing that being angry predicts action intentions, we found that becoming angry – a within-person change – can be predictive of becoming inclined to take action.
My PhD research further investigates change processes involved in collective action, using both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Currently, interviews are being carried out with social activists to gain a more in-depth insight into the key moments that can lead to becoming an active supporter of social issues. Further quantitative studies aiming to replicate our findings are planned, whilst we also seek to explore what other factors may influence this change process (e.g., identity or social networks, etc.).
This line of research will enable us not only to understand how individuals come to be engaged in collective action, but also to understand how we can engender action for social change. Social change requires people to become mobilised even though they may not be directly affected by an issue. Mobilising this support is precisely about instigating a change in the way people think, feel and act in relation to social issues. Therefore, studying collective action in terms of change processes will provide insights into how people come to act in solidarity with those who are being mistreated. Worldwide, people are constantly facing injustice, and therefore it is important to understand how people become mobilised to fight against these so we don’t end up repeating history.
About the author
LAURA NESBITT is a first-year PhD student under the supervision of Dr Andrew Livingstone and Dr Joseph Sweetman at University of Exeter. Her research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and it is focussed on the dynamics of psychological change and how people become engaged in collective action.
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