Psychology Behind Protest Responses

The Milgram experiment conducted by a Yale University psychologist of the same name, has perhaps gone on to become one of the most famous human behavioural experiments to have ever been conducted. It was conducted during the 1960s, when Nazi war criminals including Adolf Eichmann were being put on trial. The basic question was this: were the criminals really at fault, or were they “just following orders”, and hence not to be blamed?



The experiment involved a participant who would administer electric shocks to another subject who was a prisoner. In reality there was no prisoner, but the participant was told that there was, and pre-recorded screams depending on the level of voltage given were played during the experiment. The participant was also told that the subject had a heart condition. The experimenters were the ones giving the orders. While many believed that hardly 1-2% of the participants would actually increase the level of shocks to an extent which would permanently harm a human being, the results were shocking. And chillingly consistent. The percentage of people who followed orders despite actually not wanting to simply because it came from a position of authority, was well over 50%.

A similar thought experiment known as the Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in 1971. It was designed to test the degree to which power tends to corrupt individuals. Participants were assigned the roles of either guards or prisoners and asked to play these roles. The experiment had to be abandoned in less than a week, since many guards immediately assumed authoritarian roles and began meting out psychological torture to the inmates.

Though these experiments were conducted a generation or two ago and may not have followed perfect scientific methodologies while conducting them, they reveal very important characteristics of human behaviour. The first is that power, on average, tends to corrupt individuals to such an extent that they will be ready to shed in a gradually (or not) increasing fashion the morals and values that they grew up with, simply in order to retain that power. This is, of course, not a blanket statement, but is observed on numerous occasions.

The second point to be noted, is that the people following those in power, tend to do so blindly and utterly, albeit reluctantly. This is, again, only on average, and not to be taken as a generalisation.

It takes immense courage, fortitude, self-confidence, and moral beliefs to not bleat among the sheep and to stand up against an authority in case the latter is abusing or oppressing innocents. Such activists are in the minority, and undergo hardships which are unimaginable to the normal everyday citizen.

As a student of the Transformational Social Movement course offered by IIM Ahmedabad, I had the opportunity to learn about many issues plaguing our country, and the various protests that were staged in order to bring about a greater degree of fairness in the society that we live in. We also studied about the responses to these protests, and how the struggles between each side ensued.

A protest of any form, whether legitimate or not, is seen by people in authority as a threat to the power that they possess. The truest form of democracy is one in which the power resides with the people; one need look no further than our own Constitution to corroborate this. However, we are all aware that such is rarely the case.

The 2011 protests in Greece against the austerity measures imposed by the Government in the aftermath of the debt crisis saw a brutal response. The Government employed the use of the police, who in turn used tear gas, flame bombs, and physical force to subdue and restrain the protesters. More recently in 2018 we witnessed the Thoothukudi massacre, where the police fired on a crowd of over 20,000 people during the anti-Sterlite protests over environmental concerns.

There are, however, many instances where, despite the might of the oppressor, protests have yielded success. There are many strategies adopted in the pursuit of a successful protest as well. One possible strategy can come from cutting off the source of power from the oppressor. For the erstwhile British Raj, their power came from the money that they stole from us which ultimately went into helping them rule. They also mercilessly massacred innocent and peaceful protestors of the Rowlatt Act in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Gandhiji hence started the Swadeshi movement, urging all Indians to boycott British goods of any kind and only purchase and create indigenous goods. The resultant losses were extremely heavy, and led to the Britishers acquiescing to the demands of the protestors, such as the repealing of the Rowlatt Act, Press Act and 22 other laws in 1922.

Another strategy can be to simply showcase the might of the people by showing up in multitudes in a peaceful manner. One good example of this is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. The following two years marked the passage of the hallmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many times the authorities in power may choose to remain in power not by aggression but by agreeing to the demands of a large congregation of protestors. It is to this mentality that the aforementioned protestors played their game in order to achieve their means.

Although the list of possible strategies is endless, the psychology followed by those in authority is not very varied. Despite this, the breakthroughs that we have made into any psychological research of this kind are far less than it should be. This is evident in the fact that I, along with many others, refer to experiments conducted half a century ago to better illustrate our point.An in-depth understanding of this psychology can allow protestors and activists to better plan their resources and actions accordingly, in order to achieve their end goal with maximum efficiency. Since they are almost always the powerless ones in the struggle, they can use all the help they can get, be it physical or academic.More effort and passionis required in this research area.


S Kumar, is a student of  IIM Ahmedabad


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