In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, it’s easy to feel hopeless about the future of the US. But according to psychological research, that’s a dangerous emotion to indulge in times like these.
After all, fighting for positive change is hard. It requires sustained effort and a willingness to fail along the way. Hopelessness makes such effort seem futile. It drains us of our power to act.
And so, as Donald Trump prepares to become president of the United States, his opponents need to find ways to cultivate hope. One option is to participate in the protest marches surrounding his inauguration. Currently, at least 20 official protest permits have been filed in Washington DC for people planning to take to the streets in the days surrounding the inauguration. The largest of the approved protests is the Women’s March, planned for Saturday, January 21. According to the group’s Facebook page, roughly 175,000 people plan to attend, including a number of people in my own social circle.
Personally, I’ve been going back and forth about attending the protest. On one hand, it would be great to join with my friends and make it clear to Congress and president Trump that our voices will not be silenced. On the other hand, I really dislike large crowds. It would take a strong argument to compel me to brave the freezing cold and the massive throngs.
In order to figure out what to do, I decided to turn to the psychological literature on protests and hope. I wanted to find out just how useful protests really are—and whether participating might be the antidote to my feelings of powerlessness.
Turning the tide toward hope
Social justice advocates have long noted that mass protests help people regain their sense of agency. In the book Necessary Trouble, Tobita Chow of Chicago’s People’s Lobby argues that attending a march can have a truly transformative effect. “It expands your sense of freedom about what you’re willing to do and what you’re capable of doing,” he says. “It has a really liberating effect on people.”
Moreover, the feeling of hope helps infuse us with other emotions necessary to make difficult changes. “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage,” St. Augustine says. “Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Indeed, psychological literature suggests that attending protest marches is one way to strengthen both our collective anger and our individual courage to act.
Although anger often gets a bad rap, it’s essential for political change. As sociologists Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper explain in their essay “Emotions and Social Movements,” anger encourages action, and acting on anger generates pride. Pride, in turn, can prompt people to take action even when they have little or no expectation of success.
Black activists in the civil rights movement, as Goodwin and Jasper explain, would march and protest to maintain their pride and dignity even if they did not believe their actions would lead to equal rights. They describe a protestor interviewed by legal scholar Derrick Bell: “her goal was defiance, and its harassing effect was likely more potent precisely because she did what she did without expecting to topple her oppressors.”
Moreover, protest marches tend to cultivate a distinctive and very powerful kind of anger. Social psychology has found that protests shift our focus from personal to shared grievances. Meeting other protesters, hearing their stories, and laughing at each other’s jokes helps individuals feel that their personal futures are intertwined with the group’s fate. This raises the stakes on individual political actions such as circulating petitions, calling representatives, and attending town hall meetings as these stop being about making things better for “me,” and become about creating a better outcome for “us.”
The development of a group identity fostered by protest marches is known to substantially increase people’s personal commitment to a given issue. It all comes down to personal experiences and relationships. When we march alongside a Muslim man who worries his name will end up on a registry, or speak to a woman concerned that the health care she receives through Planned Parenthood is in jeopardy, we become invested in their safety and happiness. Our investment in those specific individuals far exceeds the emotion and responsibility we feel about faceless people or unknown groups.
Fostering the courage to act
Importantly, the more connected people feel to others who share their concerns, the more power they ascribe to political activism. Perhaps these personal connections allow people to predict and anticipate how political activism might create change. “Pamela is a force to be reckoned with. If she’s meeting with the congressman, I want to do the same!” or “Erick told me that at the last town hall there were only two liberals and 25 conservatives. I should go with him this time.”
It’s also clear from research that people who have a network of politically engaged friends and acquaintances are much more likely to believe that activism is a powerful lever for change. And unsurprisingly, this belief is a very strong predictor of whether an individual will find the courage to take personal action.
Fortifying for the long, hard fight ahead
There are also some arguments against participating in a protest march. The strongest argument is that real change comes from sustained, local efforts, and not from taking to the streets with a sign. Going outside and shouting in anger is cathartic, critics argue, but it isn’t going to change any minds.
But this argument assumes that we each have a set number of times we can participate in political activism, and that we are wasting them marching when we could be calling our representatives. Psychological literature suggests this understanding is inaccurate.
First, the strongest predictor of political activism is prior political activism. That means that if you want to encourage long-term political activism in your friends, for example, the best thing you can do is to encourage their very first political act and then ensure there are opportunities for rich connection with other activists.
Indeed, in her fascinating book The Making of Pro-Life Activists, sociology professor Ziad Munson writes that less than half of the activists she studied were strongly pro-life before they got involved in protests. In fact, about a quarter of the activists she studied were pro-choice before becoming involved. The experience of involvement was so powerful that it creates strong commitment to the issue, alongside a robust habit of participation.
Change comes to those who act
As I weigh the pros and cons of attending the Women’s March, one thing now feels clear. Regardless of whether I attend this march, I need to get involved as early and as often as possible so that I can develop my activist identity and network. The energy from the collective protest, combined with the connections we make, can sustain our local work when the going gets rough. And it will.
As a psychologist, I coach people who are seeking to make personal changes in their lives. One thing I tell them all the time is, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”
When we’re talking about gaining control of personal finances or finally exercising, a lack of effort does simply leads to stagnation. That’s not true on the political stage, however. A lack of effort on the part of the resistance movement means that Trump’s agenda, grounded in white nationalism, will only further advance. Change is coming to this country, one way or the other. It’s up to us to leap into the fray. So I’ll see you in DC.