What Makes an Activist

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What Makes an Activist?

Magazine article

By: Anne Becker

Date: July 18, 2003

Source: Becker, Anne. "What Makes an Activist?" Psychology Today (July 18, 2003).

About the Author: Freelance writer Anne Becker is a regular contributor to Psychology Today.


Activists are people who participate in some form of action to enact social or political change. These actions can range from simple things, such as letter-writing campaigns or boycotts of certain products, to participation in public protests, to, in extreme cases, terrorist acts. Some activists seek to confront their opposition, either in an attempt to sway their opinion or to gain support from others and thereby put their opinion in the majority, while others seek merely to educate the public regarding their opinions.


We all recognize the protestors among us: neighbors who circulate petitions for clean-air bills, animal-rights groups in the subway harassing elderly women in fur coats, students calling for peace. We often share their convictions, but voice them in a whisper. So what distinguishes the demonstrators from the do-nothings?

The fact is, activists choose to take up causes for a wide variety of reasons—some not as straightforward as they might seem.

To start, take a look at Mom and Dad. Parental modeling can play a significant role in shaping future activists, according to Lauren Duncan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Smith College who has studied activism. She found that students with a parent who fought in Vietnam were much more likely to protest against the 1991 Gulf War than those whose parents were not war veterans. "Parents teach their kids [what they believe are] appropriate ways to respond to particular situations," explains Duncan.

Personality also helps prime protesters. Those who find personal meaning in current events are inclined to speak out for a cause, according to Duncan. She is currently researching why some people feel emotionally drained after a newscast while others can turn off the TV set without qualms.

Individuals are more likely to feel a personal connection if they see themselves as part of the community affected by an issue, says Debra Mashek, Ph.D., a research fellow at George Mason University, who specializes in "moral" emotions. Millions of women embraced this sense of collective identity during the women's rights movement, for example.

Some psychologists say that most acts of altruism—defined as devotion to the interests of others—actually spring from a desire to help oneself. Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D., chair of the department of counseling at California State University at Fullerton and author of Doing Good: Passion and Commitment for Helping Others, states that altruism can be reciprocal: Humans act benevolently for conscious or unconscious gain.

"Theorists talk about it in terms of cost-benefit analysis, as if it's a rational thing," he says. "We don't do anything selflessly; we do it because it'll come back to us later—someone will owe us something down the line or it will increase our status in the community."

Does that mean altruistic acts are inherently selfish?

"Selfish is one way to say it, but it takes on such a negative connotation," says Mashek. "If I am an anti-war protestor, then by standing up for what I think is right I'm helping the world, because the world is my community, and in so doing, I help myself."

We would all be better off today if we could broaden our sense of community, according to Kottler. He recently returned from researching bushmen in the African nation of Namibia, where tribe members consider all material possessions communal. "They don't understand 'this is mine,' because they have such a strong sense of community," he says. "In America, our kin live all over the place and this leads to a lack of responsibility for taking care of other people."

Kottler subscribes to a theory of empathic arousal, which explains good acts as motivated by the intrinsic psychological and physiological rewards they provide the doer. "There's a helper"s high: When you extend yourself to someone else, it produces an altered state of consciousness. You feel aroused, you feel wonderful, you float on air."

Actively speaking out for others can generate this feeling, says Kottler. "People are totally preoccupied with themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world," he says. "The more you can get out of yourself and reach out to others, the more meaningful and satisfying life can be."


Activism can take many forms based on a person's interests, and participation can occur on a variety of levels. People who become activists at a young age are often reacting to their upbringing or some strong belief held by their family. For example, someone vocal for women's rights might be the product of a feminist household, or might as easily have come from a household where women were considered second class citizens. In the first case, the person mimics the behavior he or she witnessed as a child, standing up for the rights of women as equals in the family setting, in the workplace, and in society at large. In the second instance, the person rebels against his or her upbringing, deciding that women deserve better treatment and greater respect. As a result, the individual may become active in the struggle for women's rights on a more global scale. Likewise, a person's ideas might be influenced by growing up with a relative who fought in a war, giving them incentive to work toward peace, or with a family member in a wheelchair, providing them with the motivation to work for better handicapped access in public locations.

But other influences toward activism can come from an individual's peers or mentors, as well. Young people often become active for a particular cause during their college years, when campus life introduces them to new political agendas at a time when they are finally old enough to vote and to serve in the armed forces. This new ability to have a say in the nation's political life and to live with the consequences of political decisions can be a strong motivating factor in a person's desire to learn about the government and to take a stand regarding issues of concern. Also, the college experience introduces students to varied cultures and beliefs, some of which might inspire an interest in a cause, such as poor living conditions in a developing nation or the treatment of prisoners of war in different parts of the world.

Historically, activism appears to increase and decrease in waves, with the trends being linked to both the political and economic climate and, often, to whether or not the country is at war. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, protestors were vocal in their opposition to the continued U.S. presence in Vietnam. Students on campuses across the country protested in an effort to convince the government to pull out of the war, and some of the demonstrations became violent. Campus protests spilled over to the general public, precipitating a variety of events, including a march on the U.S. Capitol and synchronized rallies around the country. While it is difficult to know whether the protests led to an earlier withdrawal from Vietnam, they did affect U.S. policy through the elimination of the draft in favor of a voluntary armed forces in 1973. Additional war-related protests include the more recent demonstrations against the war in Iraq, which began as U.S. confidence in the purpose of the conflict started to wane, leading to a drop in public support.

Political activism extends well beyond support or demonstration against a war. For over a century, women have rallied to fight for their rights, including the right to vote in political elections, the right to receive equal wages for the equal work, or the right to control their own medical decisions. Environmental protests encompass a broad range of topics, from global warming and the systematic destruction of the ozone layer, to endangered species, to the deforestation of the planet and the pollution of land and water. Religious groups protest certain types of scientific research, maintaining that scientists are interfering with aspects of life and death that are not in the human domain and demanding legislation to reinforce the boundary between science and religion. Health care, free speech, affirmative action, tax dollars contributed to education, and censorship of the media—there is an ever-growing list of subjects in which activists involve themselves, depending on their interests, their backgrounds, and the issues that affect their lives.



Kush, Christopher. The One-Hour Activist: The 15 Most Powerful Actions You Can Take to Fight for the Issues and Candidates You Care About. Jossey-Bass, 2004.

McDarrah, Fred. Anarchy, Protest, and Rebellion: And the Counterculture that Changed America. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.

Reed, T. V. The Art of Protest. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Web sites

SpeakOut.com. <http://speakout.com/index.html> (accessed June 1, 2006).

Working Assets. "Act for Change." <http://www.workingforchange.com/activism/index.cfm> (accessed June 1, 2006).

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