The Social Psychology of Violent Protests.

What are the psychological underpinnings of a violent protestor? There are many reasons why someone might become violent, all of which can join together to cause one frightening expression. Please keep in mind though, reasons are not excuses. I am not writing to excuse anyone for choosing violent measures to communicate their point. Also, I do not believe insight is cure. However, it is a good place to start in order to reduce the chances of violence occurring again. Let’s look at some of the reasons, and think about ways to reduce the problems in the future. As a psychologist I am taking an individualist perspective and have no interest in investigating any broader religious stereotypes.

When emotions are high, impulses are more difficult to control. In Social Psychological research it has been shown that in a large group of people the influence of a few can spread virally throughout. This can urge people to act as a sign of solidarity and the assumption they are under threat rather than basing their acts on rational thought and the evidence before their eyes. Think about it, pretend you are in a group of emotionally charged people who are protesting something you feel very strongly about. All of a sudden someone in front of you is thrown back by a police officer and that person tells you the police officer lashed out at them. Do you stop to question the validity of the person’s word or do you prepare to defend yourself? What if you are all of a sudden surrounded by people shoving and fighting, how do you escape? Obviously these are theoretical examples, but hopefully it gives you an insight as to how these behaviours can infect the feelings of people in a group.

There is also the influence of age as has been mentioned in the media. The brain does not fully develop until we are twenty five and before then our ability to impulse control is reduced. Some commentators have also used the label “disaffected youth” suggesting that many of the violent protestors were young, marginalised and undereducated. Such aspects leave disaffected people feeling excluded from society and more susceptible to being lead by group influence in order to feel a sense of belonging. Violent acts also places power and thereby control back into the hands of a group of people that have felt ignored and the target of insult. Carrying around this kind of broader social insult can have an individual more susceptible to offence.

What can we do to reduce such violence in the future? Most of the action must be considered on a broader social level. Increased access to education, a media that provides less of a sensationalist message in regards to religion, more dialogue and collaboration between religious leaders who are engaged in different forms of social support, and a more balanced mass media education into marginal social issues. I am not a social entrepreneur however, and I am not in a position to comment on how these ideas could be implemented.

On a psychological level people can be shown to be more engaged with their anger or feelings of powerlessness. It is very rare that someone’s values include violence. I have spoken to clients about their anger and it almost always boils down to a lack of control somewhere in their lives. Helping them achieve control over their own behaviours gives them a greater confidence and perception that they can influence their environment. For instance, if a person feels frequently irritable and has outbursts of anger, it is often due to the fact that they no longer feel in control of some aspect of their life. Investigating the client’s values in Relationships, Leisure, Work and Health is usually a good way to discover which of these aspects of their lives have gone awry.

In a developed nation there are many ways that people can be socially influential that are far more effective than resorting to violent measures. Having a client engage in the behaviours that prove to that person that they are socially influential can encourage feelings of confidence, self-esteem and power. Involving themselves in grass roots politics, journalism or social casework are just a few examples. As a psychologist it is important to work shop these ideas with clients in order to help them identify a psychologically satisfying life.