Conversations have focused so far on whether different protest tactics are justified, such as punching a “Nazi,” while far less attention has been paid to which of these tactics work. Assuming their goal is to win popular support, how far can protesters go before their tactics become a hindrance, prompting backlash instead of winning hearts and minds? Are disruptive or violent acts of protest effective in winning support for a cause?
In the past year, we conducted experiments to assess how people respond to what we call “extreme protest tactics,” tactics that are highly disruptive or harmful to others, such as inciting or engaging in violence, blocking traffic and damaging property. Our results suggest that these tactics consistently fail to win popular support for social movements.
We find that they are more likely to backfire, prompting backlash and encouraging people to turn away from the cause.
For example, last summer, we recruited a diverse sample of Americans to participate in a study. They first gave their level of support for (then-presidential candidate) Donald Trump, viewed one of three videos and then again indicated how much they supported Trump. One video was of a news report about a recent anti-Trump protest. It showed protesters gathering in the middle of a busy street, causing a traffic jam and physically blocking carloads of Trump supporters from reaching a campaign event. The reporter covering the event describes the protesters as creating “a potentially dangerous situation” because their “actions are causing motorists to drive into oncoming traffic.” A second video was of a news report about a more moderate protest at a Trump rally, in which the protesters held signs and chanted loudly at Trump supporters. Finally, a third video that contained instructions for a home improvement project served as a control.
As shown in the graph below, participants who viewed the video of the extreme protest action showed a significant increase in their support for Trump’s presidential candidacy. The video of moderate protests led to no such increase in support, nor did views of Trump change in the control condition.
We found evidence for this same backlash effect in studies of reactions to animal rights and Black Lives Matter protests. In both cases, extreme protest tactics — inciting or engaging in violence, damaging property — led to less support than moderate protests — such as nonviolent marches and gatherings.
To understand why extreme protest tactics tend to backfire, it helps to understand that one of the most important factors influencing whether someone will join a collective action is the extent to which they identify with the movement, both its supporters and the cause. This is reflected in our studies, where we found that the backlash against extreme protests was driven by decreased identification with the movement. Given that people are typically averse to violence and significant disruption of social order, it makes sense that extreme protests would make bystanders feel less similarity to, and solidarity with, protesters.
One might reasonably wonder whether these backlash effects are observed only “on average.” Maybe those with views closer to those of the protesters are less turned off by extreme tactics? We found, however, that extreme protest tactics led to less support than moderate tactics across the political spectrum. For example, even ardent liberals showed less support for the anti-Trump movement after observing an extremist anti-Trump protest.
But if extreme protest tactics typically backfire, why do they seem to occur relatively frequently? One reason is that studies find extreme protests are effective for earning media coverage. Indeed, this may be why many have the sense that protests tactics are typically extreme — those protests get disproportionate coverage. We refer to these dual effects of extreme protests — their tendency to increase awareness, but undermine popular support — the “activist’s dilemma.”
Of course, extreme tactics are not the only way to earn coverage. If enough people attend a protest, it can maintain moderate tactics and still grab headlines, as seen with the recent women’s marches and the airport protests. But for many, smaller causes, it is a real dilemma, one that helps clarify why some movements pick tactics likely to be unpersuasive in the eyes of mass public.
But we found evidence for another explanation for the existence of extreme protests — namely, that activists may not know that these tactics are off-putting to the general public. In two surveys we conducted — one of strong supporters of social causes, another of self-identified activists — we found that respondents thought extreme protest tactics would be effective for winning popular support.
Why would activists and strong supporters inaccurately perceive the public reception of extreme tactics? Possibly because the strength of their conviction makes it difficult to fluently take the perspective of a bystander, someone not yet won over to one’s cause. Protest strategy is a lot like other forms of political communication, in that individuals must regulate their own impulses, and carefully consider the perspective of their audience, to be persuasive.
A critic might note that protests can serve a variety of purposes besides winning popular support, such as directly influencing powerful elites, fostering commitment and psychological empowerment among activists, and cathartic expression. This is true. But a major purpose of public protest is also to change minds, to grow the movement.
For those concerned about the current trajectory of the country, it is important to organize protests with a careful eye on what approach is most likely to build support, and least likely to help the other side.
Robb Willer is a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior at Stanford University.
Matthew Feinberg is a professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.