There are several reasons why people protest. Some protesters are paid and have no personal connection to the cause; while other protesters can have connections that range from mild to strong. It is the angry protester who feels most connected to the authentic rationale of the protest. It is important to understand the psyche of the angry protester so that the social, political, and law enforcement interventions are addressing the true nature of the behavior.
Protesting is a form of social unity and an act of social action at the same time. Social psychology has long researched the cause of protesting behavior. The general finding is that protest behaviors fit into three categories: (1) a protest against inaction or action, or (2) a protest aimed at improving one’s personal conditions or the conditions of one’s group. The protesting behavior is further categorized according to the protester’s level of behavioral conformity. These are either: (3) protesting behaviors that conform to society’s existing social system (e.g., petitioning or demonstrating) or are protesting behaviors that do not conform to the existing social system. These behaviors violate the social norms (e.g., illegal protests or civil disobedience). [i]
In each category, anger is often the basis for the protesting behavior. [ii] When a person becomes angry enough to protest, s/he is doing so because they are seeking justice from a perceived injustice – and they believe that their lack of action would only give permission for further injustices. The angry protester is seeking amends for their perceived maltreatment by society toward his or her conditions in life or the conditions of the group to which he or she belongs.
When anger is the basis of the person protesting, the anger stems from either personal anger or from a strong sense of empathic anger (i.e., angry because of what was done to someone else). The emotion of anger is born from the thought or belief that a basic principle of life was violated.
By protesting, the angry person is experiencing a relief from psychological distress and anxiety. They feel empowered and experience a sense of control in their life. In that act, they are refusing to have a ‘victim mentality’.[iii] The angry protester believes that there is value in his or her protesting behaviors and that their actions can make change possible. [iv]
When a protest is suddenly created or suddenly becomes violent, it is only the behavior of protesting that is sudden.[v] The underlying feelings of anger were always present. So, too, was the feeling of victimization. When the person appears to be a ‘suddenly angry protester’, what is sudden, is only the conscious thought that the injustice can no longer be accepted. Although illegal behaviors such as rioting can be for personal gain, more often than not, those extreme protesting behaviors are an act of defiance - a show of disregard for a society or an establishment that has shown disregard for that person or group’s basic needs.
Ironically, the act of protesting also provides the angry protester with a sense of happiness. They experience a short-term increase in happiness and sense of vitality. In a study on activism and mental health, it was found that the act of protesting leads to a sense of social connection, a sense of purpose in society, and a sense of mastery in one’s life. Combined, these experiences are linked to increases in happiness. [vi]
Therefore, when seeking to understand the behaviors of protesters, consider their underlying psyche. Consider that their actions are the manifestation of perceived or actual long-term injustices that threaten their basic sense of security in life; that threaten their ability to have basic needs met. Consider that their actions are based on the belief that their survival is being threatened and that the emotion of anger provides them a sense of control over their life and motivates them to take actions to control their life and to no longer be a pessimistic victim to their circumstances.
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[i] Wright SC, Taylor DM, and Moghaddam FM (1990) The relationship of perceptions and emotions to behavior in the face of collective inequality. Social Justice Research 4(3): 229–250. Yzerbyt V, Dumont M, Wigboldus;
[ii] Constructing Indignation: Anger Dynamics in Protest Movements. Emotion Review. July 1, 2014 6: 208-213.
[iii] Women and Contentious Politics. A Global Event-Data Approach to Understanding Women’s Protest, Political Research Quarterly March 2015 vol. 68 no. 1 180-192
[iv] Protest on the Fly. Toward a Theory of Spontaneity in the Dynamics of Protest and Social Movements. American Sociological Review. December 2014 vol. 79 no. 6 1122-1143
[v] Protest on the Fly
[vi] Some Benefits of Being an Activist: Measuring Activism and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being. Malte Klar and Tim Kasser. Political Psychology. Volume 30, Issue 5, pages 755–777, October 2009.
- Inside the Psyche of The Angry Protester