Friday, November 20, 2015

Are we happier when we protest? Connections between collective action and subjective wellbeing

We have all witnessed how demonstrations and peaceful protests can bring about positive social change. We have seen how mobilization that started from social networks can bring down dictatorships, how LBTQI groups and their supporters have paved the way for legislative changes across the world and gain access to legal marriage and adoption, or how feminist activists can significantly influence politics surrounding reproductive health rights by organizing social protests. And I guess that many people around the world, myself included, feel happy and proud about such efforts (and associated victories) to create more inclusive and respectful societies. Still, what do we know about the effects of social protest on our wellbeing? Are we happier or sadder when we take to the streets with other people asking to be heard and demanding change? What are the consequences that mobilizing for collective action has in our lives?


Instances in which people act together on behalf of a group with the aim of reaching a specific goal are referred to as collective actions (Wright, Taylor, & Moghaddam, 1990), and they can reflect a multitude of strategies, such as signing petitions, joining demonstrations, and organizing strikes, among many others (Van Zomeren, Postmes, & Spears, 2012).

At present, there is a vast body of research stemming from different disciplines trying to explain the whens, whys and hows of collective action throughout the world (e.g. Bliuc, Reynolds, & Muntele, 2007; Klandermans, 1997; Polletta, & Jasper, 2001; Van Zomeren, Postmes, & Spears, 2008) and significant attention has been given to the causes and antecedents of collective action. For example, Klandermans and Oegema (1987) have shown that taking collective action involves a series of decision-making processes that will affect the choice of whether or not a person will take part in a specific activity. In this line, they argue that the path towards action mobilization usually involves four main steps which people have to go through in order to participate in collective action: 1) becoming sympathetic to a cause; 2) becoming a target of mobilization attempts; 3) becoming motivated to participate; and 4) overcoming barriers to participation.

In a different but related line of research, Van Zomeren and colleagues (2008) have proposed a social identity model of collective action (SIMCA), to explain the conditions leading people to engage in social protest. They have shown that there are three main variables of interest to consider when determining the potential for collective action: 1) the first of these variables relates to identity: a person is more likely to mobilize when they have a subjective sense of identification connecting them to the people who are also mobilizing or the targets of their mobilization; 2) the second variable refers to affective injustice, which can be seen as feelings derived from the perception of an injustice and that can be expressed as outrage or collective anger directed at the situation or the perpetrators of the situation at stake; and 3) the third variable refers to perceived efficacy, meaning that people will more likely engage in collective action if they believe that their goal will be attained through such actions. Taken together, these variables can significantly predict the potential for mobilization in terms of different types of collective actions, but also in terms of different causes and groups, distinct situations of injustice or disadvantage (e.g. structural or incidental) and in a wide range of settings and contexts (e.g. Tausch et al., 2011).


However, to this day, much less is known about the potential consequences of collective action for our subjective wellbeing. The limited body of research existent does point to a consistent link between collective action and subjective wellbeing (e.g. Klar & Kasser, 2009; Kerstetter, Green, & Phillips, 2014). For example, Klar and Kasser (2009) have shown that activists (in comparison to a control group), tend to report higher levels of hedonic (i.e. wellbeing as life satisfaction, an outcome focused on a lack of negative affect and the presence of positive affect), eudaimonic (i.e. wellbeing as a process of making meaning of one’s life and expressing their true self), and social wellbeing (i.e. wellbeing as a reflection of one’s circumstances and functioning within a given society). Furthermore, Kerstetter and colleagues (2014) found that, in a rural American community, working with non-profit organizations promoted wellbeing, because these organizations function as a support basis for individuals to fulfil their personal aspirations. Going a step further, Foster (2014), through an experimental paradigm, showed that the link between collective action and wellbeing is moderated by perceptions of the issue at hand. More concretely, through an experimental study with undergraduate female students in Canada, he showed that for those who perceived gender discrimination as pervasive, taking action led to higher levels of reported wellbeing than doing nothing. However, for those who perceived gender discrimination as an isolated phenomenon, doing nothing was associated with lower negative mood than was taking action.

It is also possible that collective action influences wellbeing through its connections with emotions (e.g. Livingstone, Spears, Manstead, Bruder, & Shepherd, 2011). Interestingly, previous research has shown that the emotional effects of collective action can be both positive and negative: in an experimental study, Becker, Tausch and Wagner (2011) found that individuals who participate in collective action experience both outgroup-directed anger and contempt while experiencing more self-directed positive effect. This seems to suggest that the emotional consequences of participating in collective action are complex and dynamic and most likely mediated by different variables, such as ingroup identification and self-esteem (Becker et al., 2011).

Given the aforementioned literature, we can argue that collective action may affect people’s subjective wellbeing through different mechanisms. On the one hand, this link may be due to collective identity: when people mobilize they might develop a higher sense of belonging and identifying with a group, which in turn would increase their wellbeing due to their awareness of being connected to a group that is positively valued (McAdam, 1989; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). On the other hand, it is possible that the link between collective action and subjective wellbeing is due to the accumulation of cultural capital, in the sense that mobilization creates opportunities for the development of different capabilities and a sense of efficacy (e.g. Van Zomeren et al., 2008; Van Zomeren, Spears, Fischer, & Leach, 2004). Finally, one can also argue that the links between collective action and wellbeing may be influenced by several factors from a person’s direct context, but also their own standing on a given society. In this line, potential mediators and moderators of this relation can be related, for example, to: a) the individual’s socioeconomic status; b) political orientation; c) self-focused, ingroup and outgroup-focused emotions; d) identification with a cause; and e) legitimacy of the demands, among others.

At present, the literature is still scarce and dispersed but new venues of research will definitely increase our understanding of the processes and mechanisms influencing the links between collective action and wellbeing. In an attempt to contribute to the literature and discussion on this topic, Sofia Donoso, Ana Figueiredo, Francisca Gutierrez, Glória Jimenez, Paula Luengo, Eduardo Mora and Ana Velitchkova are currently collaborating on a project entitled “In search for the happy activist: When and how is collective action conducive to subjective wellbeing?” at the Center for Studies in Conflict and Social Cohesion (COES) in Chile and, together, they hope to shed some new insights into this body of research.

To conclude, be it because we want to show our solidarity with a cause, or because we find it important to defend a group we care about, or even because we want to show our government we’re not happy about their work, each and every one of us has, at least once, taken part in a situation or event in which people come together and join efforts in order to reach a goal or to instill a desired outcome within a given context. So, the next time you are confronted with the possibility of mobilizing for something you care about, think as well of the positive consequences such mobilization can bring to your own wellbeing. Who knows, maybe you’ll be more motivated to take action… and feel happier afterwards.


Becker, J. C., Tausch, N., & Wagner, U. (2011). Emotional consequences of collective action participation: Differentiating self-directed and outgroup-directed emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(12), 1587 1598.

Bliuc, A. M., Reynolds, C., & Muntele, D. (2007). Opinion-based group membership as a predictor of commitment to political action. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37(1), 19-32.

Foster, M. D. (2014). The relationship between collective action and well-being and its moderators: Pervasiveness of discrimination and dimensions of action. Sex Roles, 70, 165-182.

Kerstetter, K., Green, J., & Phillips, M. (2014). Collective action to improve rural community wellbeing: Opportunities and constraints in the Mississippi Delta. Rural Society, 23(3), 257-269.

Klandermans, B. (1997). The Social Psychology of Protest. Massachussets, USA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Klandermans, B., & Oegema, D. (1987). Potentials, networks, motivations and barriers: Steps towards participation in social movements. American Sociological Review, 52, 519–531.

Klar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some benefits of being an activist: Measuring activism and its role in psychological well-being. Political Psychology, 30(5), 755-777.

Livingstone, A. G., Spears, R., Manstead, A. S., Bruder, M., & Shepherd, L. (2011). We feel, therefore we are: Emotion as a basis of self-categorization and social action. Emotion, 11(4), 754-767. Doi: 10.1037/a0023223

McAdam, D. (1989). The Biographical Consequences of Activism. American Sociological Review, 54, 744-760.

Polletta, F., & Jasper, J. M. (2001). Collective Identity and Social Movements. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 283-305.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup conflict. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.

Tausch, N., Becker, J. C., Spears, R., Christ, O., Saab, R., Singh, P., & Siddiqui, R. N. (2011). Explaining radical group behavior; Developing emotion and efficacy routes to normative and non-normative collective action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(1), 129-148.

Van Zomeren, M., Postmes, T., & Spears, R. (2008). Toward an integrative social identity model of collective action: A quantitative research synthesis of three socio-psychological perspectives. Psychological Bulletin, 134(4), 504-535.

Van Zomeren, M. Postmes, T., & Spears, R. (2012). On conviction’s collective consequences: Integrating moral conviction with the social identity model of collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 52-71.

Van Zomeren, M., Spears, R., Fischer, A., & Leach, C. (2004). Put your money where your mouth is! Explaining collective action tendencies through group-based anger and group efficacy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5), 649-664.

Wright, S. C., Taylor, D. M., & Moghaddam, F. M. (1990). Responding to membership in a disadvantaged group: From acceptance to collective protest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 994–1003.


Ana Figueiredo is a postdoc researcher at the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. 

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