In essence, protests are attempts by a cohesive group to convince, persuade or coerce others to take action or take on values of the social cause of the group.
There is solidarity in protest groups and a sense of commitment to the cause. This may induce influence through the social consensus or bandwagon technique. This technique provides targets with social proof about what to do or think. There is power in numbers in protests, so the more members a group can acquire, the more of a stir they cause in society, raising awareness for the cause, gaining attention (good or bad) and giving them more chance of succeeding in the cause. Two types of influence can be at work in the social consensus tactic. Informational influence: it provides information about what is right. ‘If other people are doing it, it must be correct”. People may come to internalise the group values. And normative influence: social pressure to conform to the group. People have a need to belong and to avoid ostracism (Williams, 2001), and this need can be a powerful motivator to induce compliance.
Minority groups (or opinion-deviants) can use protests as an effective means of communicating a persuasive message. They will likely attract negative attention from the majority, but even negative attention can induce influence (De Dreu, 2007) as people are intrigued by a ‘deviant view’ and engage in more effortful information processing towards it. Moscovici (1976) outlines several characteristics of minority groups that lead to successful social change including confidence, consistency of message, flexibility in negotiation and linking their position to an objective standard.
In their classic study, Moscovici, Lage, and Naffrechoux (1969) composed a ‘visual perception task’ in which participants had to judge whether a slide was green or blue. The slide colours were unambiguous and relatively easy to categorise. The aim of the study was to measure the effect of responses of 2 confederates (minority) on the responses of 4 participants (majority). They found that when the minority were inconsistent with their incorrect responses, they exerted little influence over the majority, who almost always answered correctly. But when they gave incorrect answers very consistently, they had a large impact on the majority, increasing incorrect responses.
Not all protest groups are effective; some may even damage their cause. However if minority groups could not influence people, new ideas would never emerge and society would never change. Knowing how to communicate a minority position effectively is the key.
De Dreu, C. K. W. (2007) Minority dissent, attitude change, and group performace. In. Pratkanis (Ed.), The science of social influence (pp.245-270).New York: Psychology Press.
Moscovici, S. (1976). Social influence and social change. London: Academic Press.
Moscovici, S., Lage, E., & Naffrechoux, M. (1969). Influence of a consistent minority on the responses of a majority in a color perception task. Sociometry, 32, 365-379.
Williams (2001). Ostracism: The power of silence. New York: Guildford Press.