Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Activism motivation

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Activism motivation:
What motivates people to engage in human/environment/animal rights activism?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.” ― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Why do some people use their energy, time and other resources to actively fight for and raise awareness about environmental, human and other animal issues? Whilst others don't seem to care at all?

This chapter will explore some of the motivations that people have to become activists in different social justice movements. The following information can be used in two different ways. Firstly, it can be used by individuals to learn about the different motivating factors and theories, which in turn will hopefully motivate their own activism. And secondly, it can be used by organisers and recruiters of social justice groups to help shape their recruitment processes and education campaigns to get more people involved.

The who, what and why of activism[edit | edit source]

What is activism?[edit | edit source]

“Activist orientation is defined as an individual’s developed, relatively stable, yet changeable orientation to engage in various collective, social-political, problem-solving behaviours spanning a range from low-risk, passive, and institutionalized acts to high-risk, active, and unconventional behaviours.” Corning & Myers (2002)

The comprehensive nature of Corning and Myers’s definition demonstrates that activism is not just one thing. Our society is based on large scale oppression (Maxey, 1999) which favours the powerful few over the vulnerable many. The many include not only humans but other animals and the environment too. On our planet billions of animals are killed daily for consumption by a small portion of the population while over 800 million people live on less than $1.25 a day and have difficulty accessing food and clean drinking water (United Nations Development Project, 2015). Meanwhile, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) have announced that all food security across the planet is at risk due to climate change.

Maxey (1999) suggests that the overwhelming level of oppression can be disempowering and yet there are still activists who take a stand every day. Some activists aim to reform current governmental policies in hopes of improving the welfare of people or other animals in the immediate future while other more transformative activists (Zoller, 2005) aim to dismantle social structures in hopes of challenging oppression at its cause.

Activism encompasses a wide range of behaviours (Faver, 2001) which includes everything from writing and calling politicians about local, national or international issues, taking legal action, organising or attending rallies, demonstrations and protests, writing submissions, educating and awareness raising, signing a petition, boycotting an event or product to wearing a t-shirt with a social justice slogan on it.

Figure 4. Animal Rights activism.
Figure 5. Human Rights activism.
How to tell if you're an activist?

Have you ever...

Written to your local MP about an issues that you were concerned about?
Attended a rally or a protest?
Campaigned for a political party?
Written to local media about an issues that concerned you?
Volunteered for a social justice organisation (environmental, animal or human)?
Helped organise an event which raised community awareness about a social issue?
Chosen to live your life in a way that reduces your carbon footprint (i.e. you eat a plant-based diet, ride a bike or walk instead of drive etc)?
Self-identified as an activist?

The more questions you answered 'yes' to the more likely you're an activist!

Who are activists?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Activists work towards social change.

Being an activist can range from being a paid professional, such as working for Amnesty International (Rodgers, 2010), working as an alternative journalist (Harcup, 2011), through to volunteering for a local community organisation. You can even be an activist by yourself! The main element that constitutes activism is taking action to affect social change (Faver, 2001; Gilster, 2012; Lindblom & Jacobsson, 2014; Zoller, 2005). This can be in relation to the environment, humans, other animals or in many cases, a combination of all three.

Activists may break social norms in order to behave in ways which better align with their own moral code and while this can reduce an individual’s cognitive dissonance it can also lead to alienation from society (Lindblom & Jacobsson, 2014). For example, a person who believes that non-human animals do not exist for human pleasure may not eat, use or wear animals and animal by-products. This form of lifestyle activism (Cherry, 2015), known as veganism, is a challenge to mainstream beliefs and societal norms in regards to non-human animals.

Examples of activism[edit | edit source]

  1. With more data being collected about the direct impacts of climate change on human food production and weather patterns (Climate Institute, 2015) more people are starting to care about environmental issues (Mihaylov & Perkins, 2015). According to Measham & Barnett (2008) environmental activism involves activities which range from educating the public about what is happening to the environment and its impact on humans and other animals, especially wildlife, to full-scale environmental protection which involves stopping the destruction of forests, waterways and wildlife habitats. People from all walks of life get involved with environmental activism as demonstrated by the Lock the Gate Campaign. The campaign aims to stop unsafe mining in Australia with an emphasis on blocking fracking for coal seam gas and has attracted the support of thousands of ordinary people as well as influential Australians like Alan Jones (ABC, 2014).
  2. Animal rights activism has a wide range of activities that activists participate in to try and reduce or stop the suffering of non-human animals. These activities can range from talking to someone about what happens to animals in scientific laboratories or in slaughterhouses to taking direct action against businesses who profit from animal cruelty via protests, demonstrations and economic sabotage. Again, while there are stereotypes of what an animal rights activists looks and acts like in reality there are people from all walks of life who get involved in the movement.
  3. Human rights activists range from people who work in structured international organisations like Amnesty to people who are involved with local charities like the Salvation Army who help feed and clothe the homeless. Other forms of human rights activism which people may not recognise as activism is health activism (Zoller, 2005) which involves raising awareness about health issues in the community especially in regards to minorities such as women, Indigenous and LGBITQ peoples as well as health care reform and illness advocacy. In Australia, a current pressing human rights issue is that of asylum seekers coming to Australia via boats and being held in mandatory detention centres offshore. Many groups have banded together to hold national rallies (ABC, 2015) to let the government know that most Australians do not support detention centres for refugees further demonstrating that anyone can be a human rights activist.

Motivational theories[edit | edit source]

There are many motivating factors when looking at why people get involved with activism. The following section on motivational theories reflects this:

Note: Please note this is not an exhaustive list of theories.

Self-Determination Theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Self Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is the study of "people's inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs that are the basis for their self-motivation and personality integration, as well as for the conditions that foster those positive processes" (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). Ryan & Deci (2000) believe that intrinsic motivation is the key to people's ability to seek challenges, grown and learn in the right social-environmental conditions. More specifically, Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) a subset of SDT, found that intrinsic motivation was determined by social environments which either supported or inhibited three psychological needs; autonomy, competence and relatedness. A second subset theory of SDT called Organismic Intergration Theory (OIT) relates to the intergration[spelling?] and internalisation of values which lead to external motivation to achieve autonomy, competence and relatedness. In their meta-analysis Ryan & Deci (2000) argue that the pursuit of intrinisic[spelling?] aspirations which lead to autonomy, competence and relatedness can positively affect mental health and well-being with the inverse occurring i.e. psychopathology and ill-being if these psychological needs are not met.

In regards to activism, if a person holds social justice for animals, the environment and/or humans as an internal aspiration because it fulfils[spelling?] their psychological needs of relatedness then SDT would say that they are intriniscally[spelling?] motivated toward that goal and are compelled to achieve it for their own mental health. Further, OIT demonstrates how people can encourage others to internalise values regarding the environment, humans and other animals which fosters external motivations toward activism too.

Moral schemas[edit | edit source]

Farrell’s (2011) research on environmental activist’s[grammar?] motivations and moral schemas led him to categorise his study's sample into different groups; the unenchanted and the enchanted (which he then broke down further into the creational and the intrinsic). These three categories represent the different moral schemas people held of the environment. The enchanted groups both held the internalised schemas of the environment which gave it significance in their world view. The difference between the two groups was that the enchanted intrinsics held the view that nature was in and of itself sacred while the enchanted creationalists believed that the environment was sacred due to spiritual/religious reasons. While the unenchanted believed the environment was important but didn’t hold a sacred view of it[grammar?].

The results of the study showed that the enchanted intrinsics, those who believe the environment is sacred in itself, were more likely to be involved in environmental activism (for example, they belonged to an environmental group or donated money to an environmental cause). The research suggests that people who have an internalised moral schema which differentiates the environment as something sacred may feel a greater moral obligation toward it. Berenguer's (2010) research also found that people who held higher empathic values for animals and humans were more likely to be pro-environment. People who hold these enchanted moral schemas and empathic values, therefore, may be more intrinsically motivated to act in ways which support/protect the environment and therefore more likely to become an activist.

Theory of planned behaviour & value-belief-norm[edit | edit source]

Figure 8. Theory of planned behaviour.

Ajzen's (1991) theory of planned behaviour (TPB) suggests that the combination of:

  1. attitudes a person holds toward a behaviour,
  2. perceptions a person has about the norms regarding the behaviour, as well as
  3. the perceived control a person has over the behaviour

are the best predictors as to whether a person will carry out said behaviour. Further, Stern et al.'s (1999) value-belief-norm theory (VBN) has demonstrated that there is a causal process where personal beliefs about the environment precede behavioral norms which precede pro-environmental behaviors. In their own research, Oreg & Katz-Gerro (2006) combined the TPB, VBN and two nation-level values (harmony and post-materialism) to create a test model which successfully predicted pro-environmental behaviours cross-culturally. The specific results from their study demonstrated that the psychological constructs which signify the way people think and feel toward the environment motivates their behaviour.

Ethic of care[edit | edit source]

Faver’s (2001) qualitative research explored the motivations behind women’s social activism, morals and spirituality and found three overarching motivational themes:

  1. to ensure rights
  2. to fulfill responsibilities, and
  3. to restore relationships and build community

These three themes are the basis of a theory known as the Ethic of Care. Although a criticism of Faver’s study is that her sample of 50 women was quite homogeneous which limits its generalisability of this study[grammar?]. Other research, however, has also found that feelings of empathy and compassion which translate into a concern for others is a major motivating factor in carrying out specific forms of humanitarian activism (Omoto, Snyder & Hackett, 2010).

The theory of ethic of care was originally proposed by Carol Gilligan and has now been built upon by many feminist scholars to not only encompass compassion for humans but also for the environmental and non-human animals (Donovan & Adams, 2007). The theory is “a more flexible, situational and particularised ethic” (Donovan & Adams, 2007) which suggests that we have a moral responsibility toward others which is more about how we relate to others and the contexts in which those relations occur. In other words, an ethic of care sees individuals as being important in and of themselves and situation dependent which means there are no hard and fast rules to regulate moral considerations. This is contrast to many rights-based theories which have rules and regulate who has access to rights dependent on certain features rather than situations (Donovan & Adams, 2007).

Specifically in animal rights, the feminist ethic of care theory developed as a response to the anti-emotional and pro-rational approaches favoured by many of the movements[grammar?] male (alleged) founders and leaders such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan (Donovan, 2007). Their rational theories as to why we should not use animals (utilitarianism for Singer and moral rights for Regan) were seen as logical and understandable but as Jasper (1998) puts it cognitive agreement alone does not necessarily translate into action and people still continue to use and abuse animals.

It is because of this disregard of spiritual, emotional and relational connections between humans that feminist animal rights activists argue against the use of rational arguments to motivate people to care or act for animals (or the environment or humans). The results from Faver’s study demonstrated that an ethic of care theory creates a sense of interconnectedness and a moral obligation to others which acts as a motivational factor in leading people to activism and sustaining their role within social movements.

Emotions[edit | edit source]

Jasper (1998) posits that it is emotion that different social movement group organisers appeal to when trying to motivate potential volunteers, members, voters or activists to action. Different emotions motivate people into different forms of action. For example, Rodgers (2010) in her study of paid employees of Amnesty International found that the many workers were motivated to do their work by powerful emotions such as guilt. Their feelings of guilt arose when they compared their lives to that of their clients whom they researched or advocated on behalf of and often led to feelings of distress. Further demonstrating that emotions play a role in motivation across a range of activists fields, Askins (2009) an academic-activist states that it is the intense range of emotions she feels about social and environmental issues which fuels her passion to make social change via her field.

Jasper (1998) further suggests that shock tactics can be used to cause outrage and alarm among people in order to educate and motivate them to action. A study by Miller and Krosnick (2004) found, however, that by giving people opportunities to help rather than causing fear-induced responses campaigns were more likely to engage people and motivate them to take social action.

An example of this occurred in 2011 when the Australian news program Four Corners ran an exposé on the Australian live cattle trade using footage taken by activists from Animals Australia's investigation team showing animals being treated horrifically by slaughterhouse workers (Animals Australia, 2015). The program sparked a national campaign to have the Australian live export industry shut down and inspired thousands of ordinary Australian people to take the streets in protest (ABC, 2011). While the shocking nature of the footage filled many people with sadness and despair it also filled many people with outrage and anger. Animals Australia and supporting animal rights organisations utilised these emotions to encourage people to express these emotions via rallies held in many cities and towns across the country in the weeks following the news program as well as toward their local politicians in the form of online petitions and form letters. These opportunities for action, immediately following the intense affect caused by the discovery of animal mistreatment, led to an unprecedented number of people to stand up for animals in Australia and become activists, even if just temporarily.

Finally Jasper (1998) suggests that is due to emotions that joining social movement groups or becoming part of a network of like-minded individuals to fight for a common good can be pleasurable in and of itself and it is this pleasure which motivates people to get involved. For example, people who believe that animals should not be eaten by humans join vegan social groups or societies to enjoy cruelty-free eating whilst socialising and feminist groups often create safe spaces for women only to socialise to challenge male-dominated social spaces.

Barriers to activism[edit | edit source]

Becoming involved in activism is not necessarily as simple as finding what motivates someone and then encouraging that factor. Unfortunately for many motivated people there are barriers in the way to getting involved with activism. As Klandermans & Oegema (1987) state motivation and barriers interact to activate participation. Barriers may include, but are not limited to;

  • physical ability - e.g. some people are not able to part in rallies or fundraising events which involve walking or running due to physical disabilities
  • socio-economic status - e.g. joining social events or being a part of actions can cost money and/or time which some people do not have (Miller & Krosnick, 2004)
  • lack of social networks - e.g. people may be motivated to get involved in social actions like protests but may lack the social networks to feel comfortable attending (Klandermans & Oegema, 1987)
  • pessimism - e.g. some people who are sympathetic to social causes are unwilling to actively join a movement because they are unable to see how individuals can make a difference (Swank & Fahs, 2011)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Activism is good for one's well-being (Klar & Kasser, 2009) and empowering (Gilster, 2012) while also working toward a common good for the environment, humans and other animals. While there are many motivating factors to becoming involved with activism there are also some barriers which may limit participation, however, there are ways to overcome them.

Figure 9. Activists participating in a protest against the use of animals in entertainment.

To become an activist[edit | edit source]

  • Work out what you care about how you want to make a difference – environment, animals, humans, or even better, all three!?
  • If you'd like to join a group then search online, especially in local media, for different organisations or groups that are in your local area. If you can't find any around or any that interest you then check for online groups - Facebook is a great place to find grass-roots community organisations and social groups.
  • Work out what your assets are:
    • Are you keen and full of energy to get involved hands-on or would rather something low-key and behind the scenes (or both!)?
    • Do you have spare time to offer help or are you strapped for time but could help out in financial or networking ways?
    • Do you have skills you could offer like IT, artistic or planning skills?
      • These are just a few of the things you could offer but most organisations or groups are just keen on having new people with energy and positivity get involved!
  • Contact the group and see if there are specific ways you can get involved or turn up to their next event or meeting.
  • If you can't find a group you want to join or there isn't a group doing what you want to do then start your own!

To encourage activists[edit | edit source]

  • Collom (2011) suggests that tailoring the activities or tasks that you need done to the actual people who you are targeting will lead to more satisfied volunteers and a higher chance of volunteers becoming more involved in the future.
  • Jasper (1998) believes to successfully recruit people it is very important how an organisation frames and convinces its potential recruits of its goals, the tools in which it will achieve its goal/s and why they recruits should get involved. His research shows that an organisations[grammar?] claims should be empirically sound as well as complementary to the people they are trying to recruit. i.e asking an impoverished community to fund an expensive campaign to fix up the local tennis courts would not be a well-suited or successful recruitment process.
  • Oreg & Katz-Gerro (2006) argue that instead of increasing people's knowledge about environmental (or animal or human) issues as most educational programs aim to do activists need to focus their educational programs on changing cultural values in order to get people to change their behaviours regarding the environment, animals and humans and thus become more involved in social justice movements.

See also[edit | edit source]


Animal Rights

Human Rights

References[edit | edit source]

ABC. (2011, August 14). Thousands march against live animal exports. ABC. Retrieved from

Animals Australia. (2011. May 30). Indonesian live export investigation on Four Corners damning. Animals Australia. Retrieved from

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211.

Askins, K. (2009). ‘That's just what I do’: Placing emotion in academic activism. Emotion, Space and Society, 2, 4-13.

Berenguer, J. (2008). The Effect of Empathy in Environmental Moral Reasoning. Environment and Behavior, 42, 110-134.

Cherry, E. (2014). I Was a Teenage Vegan: Motivation and Maintenance of Lifestyle Movements. Sociological Inquiry, 85, 55-74.

Collom, E. (2011). Motivations and Differential Participation in a Community Currency System: The Dynamics Within a Local Social Movement Organization. Sociological Forum, 26, 144-168.

Corning, A., & Myers, D. (2002). Individual Orientation Toward Engagement in Social Action. Political Psychology, 23, 703-729.

Donovan, J. (2007) Animal Rights and Feminist Theory. In J. Donovan & C. Adams (Eds). The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (pp. 58-86). New York: Columbia University Press.

Donovan, J., & C. Adams. (2007). The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Farrell, J. (2011). Environmental Activism and Moral Schemas: Cultural Components of Differential Participation. Environment and Behavior, 45, 399-423.

Faver, C. (2001). Rights, Responsibility, and Relationship: Motivations for Women's Social Activism. AFFILIA, 16, 314-336.

Gilster, M. (2012). Comparing Neighborhood-Focused Activism and Volunteerism: Psychological Well-Being and Social Connectedness. Journal of Community Psychology, 40, 769-784.

Harcup, T. (2011). Alternative Journalism as Active Citizenship. Journalism, 12, 15-31.

Jasper, J. (1998). The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions in and around Social Movements. Sociological Forum, 13, 397-424.

Klandermans, B., & Oegema, D. (1987). Potentials, Networks, Motivations, and Barriers: Steps Towards Participation in Social Movements. American Sociological Review, 52, 519.

Klar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some Benefits of Being an Activist: Measuring Activism and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being. Political Psychology, 30, 755-777.

Lindblom, J., & Jacobsson, K. (2013). A Deviance Perspective on Social Movements: The Case of Animal Rights Activism. Deviant Behavior, 35, 133-151.

Matsuba, M., & Pratt, M. (2013). The Making of an Environmental Activist: A Developmental Psychological Perspective. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2013, 59-74.

Maxey, I. (1999). Beyond boundaries? Activism, Academia, Reflexivity and Research. Area, 31, 199-208.

Measham, T., & Barnett, G. (2008). Environmental Volunteering: Motivations, Modes and Outcomes. Australian Geographer, 39, 537-552.

Mihaylov, N., & Perkins, D. (2015). Local Environmental Grassroots Activism: Contributions from Environmental Psychology, Sociology and Politics. Behavioral Sciences, 5, 121-153.

Miller, J., & Krosnick, J. (2004). Threat as a Motivator of Political Activism: A Field Experiment. Political Psychology, 25, 507-523.

Omoto, A., Snyder, M., & Hackett, J. (2010). Personality and Motivational Antecedents of Activism and Civic Engagement. Journal of Personality, 78, 1703-1734.

Oreg, S., & Katz-Gerro, T. (2006). Predicting Proenvironmental Behavior Cross-Nationally: Values, the Theory of Planned Behavior, and Value-Belief-Norm Theory. Environment and Behavior, 38, 462-483.

Reinfrank, A. (2015, October 11). Rally opposing detention of asylum seekers draws huge crowds in Canberra's CBD. ABC. Retrieved from

Rodgers, K. (2010). ‘Anger is Why We're All Here’: Mobilizing and Managing Emotions in a Professional Activist Organization. Social Movement Studies, 9, 273-291.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., Abel, T., Guagnano, G. A.,& Kalof, L. (1999). A value-belief-norm theory of support for social movements: The case of environmentalism. Human Ecology Review, 6, 81-97.

Swank, E., & Fahs, B. (2011). Students for Peace: Contextual and Framing Motivations of Antiwar Activism. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 38, 111-136.

Taylor, K. (2014, August 4). Drew Hutton and Alan Jones renew old ties for Lock The Gate movement against coal seam gas wells. ABC. Retrieved from

The Climate Institute. (2015, August 10). Media Release - Post-2020 pollution reduction targets announcement a critical opportunity for Abbott government to reflect public sentiment on climate, renewables and carbon pollution. The Climate Institute. Retrieved from,-renewables-and-carbon-pollution.html

United Nations Development Project. (2015). Goal 1: No poverty. Retrieved from United Nations Development Project website:

Veldman, R. (2012). Narrating the Environmental Apocalypse: How Imagining the End Facilitates Moral Reasoning Among Environmental Activists. Ethics and the Environment, 17, 1-23.

Zoller, H. (2005). Health Activism: Communication Theory and Action for Social Change. Communication Theory, 15, 341-364.

External Links[edit | edit source]

Links to activism resources:

Amnesty International ACT & NSW

Animal Liberation ACT

Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC)

Refugee Action Committee Canberra


Vegan ACT