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Behind the activist behavior, a brief analysis.

By: Melissa Salcedo

People setting fire to a congress building in Guatemala, paintings on historical monuments in feminist protests in Mexico, or a young man hitting the face of a congressman in Peru; these are all examples of violent behavior in a determined social context.

Social psychology studies how individuals think, feel, and behave in any social context (Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2010) and offers a better understanding of these types of situations. Social Psychology (SP) studies a variety of topics, from the most common individual and group attitudes and beliefs to the most transcendental ones. In this sense, SP carries out numerous investigations on the individual’s behavior involvement in social movements.

Thus, this article aims to analyze activism from cognition, emotion, and motivation perspectives; explaining the psychological processes that underlie the activist's behavior.

Activism is nothing more than the space where an individual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are carried out through activities in a given social context. It is a group process that seeks to address and provide solutions to problems that society may face, inviting the public to change their pre-existing social cognition in the long term (Mazumder, 2018).

The human being is inherently a social being (Lieberman, 2014), who will seek to solve problems in his/her surrounding. Evolutionary psychology explains that this search for social solutions is a product of the evolution of human behavior (Buss, 2005). Therefore, it has an important factor when talking about activism. Our ancestors had to live together in groups to survive; each one would have an assigned role to achieve the well-being and survival of the group. For example, if the hunter did not fulfill his role, there would be no food. If those in charge of distributing the food did not do it properly, a member of the group would not be eating properly, could get a disease, and put all the members of the group in danger. The individual who did not contribute to the well-being of the group put the survival of the whole group at risk.

This theory proposes that the human being thanks to this experience, developed mechanisms or cognitive abilities to detect individuals that did not fulfill their responsibility towards the group, or individuals that selfishly benefited at the expense of the well-being of members of the group, this is known as "Cheater-Detection Mechanism". From this evolutionary perspective, it can be explained why individuals can automatically detect injustices perpetrated by others in their communities (Van Lier, Revlin, & De Neys, 2013).

Today, human beings face even more complex problems and events than in the past. However, understanding the basic principles that explain why the human being is inherently a social being and is designed to detect social injustices will help to better understand the activist's behavior.

On the other hand, there are other perspectives for analyzing the activist's behavior. One such perspective is the social cognition perspective. Social cognition can be defined as the product of the processes of perception, memory, and interpretation that individuals make about themselves and others (Hunt, Borgida, & Lavine, 2012). This concept explains how we form impressions and attitudes or how we make social judgments and decisions. This means social cognitions have an impact on behavior.

Every individual has his/her own set of social cognitions. Due to the existence of so much diversity, all individuals can not generate the same social cognitions. For example, the social cognitions of an individual who supports abortion will be vastly different from the social cognitions of an individual who is against abortion. For this reason, it is often difficult to reach consensus; there are social cognitions that will collide with others, always.

Individuals generate social cognitions on diverse topics, such as racism, discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes, chavism, corruption, environmental pollution, etc. These examples are mentioned because they have something in common, they all express injustice, and in this search for justice, the activist is born.

With the arrival of social networks, individuals have created one more space to generate social cognitions around a topic. Activism in social networks has become an important resource for activist groups (Velasquez & LaRose, 2015). At the same time, is dangerous generating social cognitions based on false information. Social cognitions generated based on false information represent a great danger to society. For this reason, is important to check the veracity of the information we encounter in social networks.

Besides the existence of spaces that generate social cognitions, it is important to analyze the activist behavior from an emotional perspective (Brown & Jenny, 2009). Injustice can provoke various emotions in the human being, such as sadness, fear, anger, rage, indignation, etc.

Emotions have a fundamental role in activism; they will be the fuel that sets in motion any social movement. For example, the emotions of anger and sadness of a mother after losing her daughter to femicide will motivate her to lead or participate in activist events to seek justice and contribute to the well-being of other women who might have had the same fate. In this sense, it is positive to provide spaces to validate the activist emotions and empathize with the suffering caused by the injustice she is fighting for.

However, people need to be careful when empathizing with the emotions of activists in protests, especially if the activist actions are exaggerated and unregulated. If the activist fails to regulate his/her emotions, it may even harm the entire cause of the protest. Generating a great dilemma: in any social movement, if the activist behavior observed is considered extreme or harmful for others, could mean a decrease in the public support for the social movement (Matthew, Robb, & Chloe, 2020).

Returning to the initial example of this article. If the public considers burning down a government building, painting a historical monument, or hitting the face of a congressman as an extreme protest action, even if the activist is a social being who seeks to put end to an injustice or has the noblest social cognitions, may fail terribly in achieving this goal. For that reason, it is important that in every protest action, the activist is organized and influences his/her peers to practice emotional self-regulation.

Finally, after analyzing the cognitive and emotional aspects, we understand why we engage in activities to end injustices in the social contexts close to us and how in this exercise we generate social cognitions. This last section will discuss what motivates people to get involved in activism. To mention an example, an individual may think that child marriage is wrong, it may cause the individual various emotions such as indignation, anger, or concern and, know that something must be done. The individual may generate many opinions (social cognitions) about why this occurs and how it can be resolved.

However, he/she may not get involved in existing activism events to eradicate this kind of injustice despite being against child marriage. Why don't all individuals get involved in activist events?

SP offers different explanations. Among them, we have situational influence. The viewer effect theory, for example, is an effect that occurs when the presence of other people inhibits the provision of help (Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2010). One would assume that when we see news about an act of corruption perpetuated by individuals with important political positions commit acts of corruption, the public would be inclined to protest; nevertheless, this theory explains that when there is the presence of many people, they are less likely to provide help. Therefore, if you notice that a friend of yours did not share anything on his/her social media about a recent political injustice, do not assume that he/she is indifferent, perhaps it was only the effect of the viewer.

Another situational influence it is called: observer inhibition, which can be explained as the refusal to support a cause because of fear of making a bad impression (Latané & Darley, 1970). Perhaps this effect explains why many of our close male friends do not participate in social movements that fight to eradicate violence against women. They may fear rejection from other social groups that do not recognize or understand the great problem that is violence against women.

Lastly, another motivational aspect is, personal influences. This explains who may be more willing to support a social movement. There is evidence that suggests that there are relatively stable individual differences in predispositions to help. However, there is not a term such as "altruistic personality”. The evidence suggests two qualities that may predict who is most likely to help, and possibly engage in social movements, these qualities are empathy and advanced moral reasoning (Hoffman, 2000).

Empathy is the ability that people havo to adopt the opinions of others, which would make them more likely to become involved in social movements. Advanced moral reasoning is the ability individuals to obey moral standards independently of external social dictations and to consider the needs of others.

Thus, the next time you see an activist, avoid thinking of him/her as an individual who seeks to create problems, disorder, and chaos, but rather see him/her as an individual who is by nature an altruistic being with empathetic capacities, obedient to moral standards, and a servant of the needs of others.

There are numerous other theories and explanations of SP regarding activism. However, this article limits itself to briefly mentioning some of them from the cognitive, emotional, and motivational perspective.

May this article be used to explain why human beings are programmed to seek to resolve injustices around them through activism, how they generate certain opinions and thoughts on different issues in certain social contexts, explain the emotional process that occurs, and how we can motivate others to become involved in social activist movements.

"The purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion for others and a willingness to help them”.

Albert Schwitzer


Brown, G., & Jenny, P. (2009). Space for emotion in the spaces of activism. Emotion, Space and Society, 24–35.

Buss, D. M. (2005). The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Emphaty and moral development: Implications for caring and justice.Nueva York: Cambrige university.

Hunt, C., Borgida, E., & Lavine, H. (2012). Social Cognition. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, 456-462.

Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. (2010). Psicologia Social. Mexico: Cengage Learning.

Latané, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? Nueva York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Lieberman , M. D. (2014). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Broadway Books.

Matthew , F., Robb , W., & Chloe , K. (2020). The Activist’s Dilemma: Extreme Protest Actions Reduce Popular Support. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Mazumder, S. (2018). The Persistent Effect of U.S. Civil Rights Protests. American Journal of Political Science.

Van Lier, J., Revlin , R., & De Neys, W. (2013). Detecting Cheaters without Thinking: Testing the. PLoS ONE.

Velasquez, A., & LaRose, A. (2015). Social Media for Social Change: Social Media Political Efficacy and Activism in Student Activist Groups. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 456-474 .


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