By Gwyneth McClendon

Why do individuals participate in non-voting forms of collective political action? The last few years have been rife with examples of rallies, protests and demonstrations: from student protests in Hong Kong, to the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations in the United States, to mass rallies in the Ukraine. While we can ask questions about why such contentious events happen in some places and times and not in others, we might also want to understand more about the motivations pulling individuals into the fray. What motivates an ordinary citizen to join in?

It can be difficult to answer this question empirically. Individual participation in rallies and protests is usually not systematically recorded. Unlike voter turnout or campaign donations, lists of individual participants are rarely compiled. Individuals may also not be reliable narrators about their own motivations for participating or not participating. Observational differences between those who take to the streets and those who do not may be spurious rather than direct causes of participation.

With these challenges in mind, I took an experimental approach to investigating factors pulling individuals into collective political events. Specifically, I worked closely with a U.S.-based non-governmental advocacy organization that was organizing a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rally for marriage equality and other LGBT issues in 2011. We randomly assigned potential participants to receive differently-worded email invitations to attend the rally and then compared rates of intended, actual and reported participation across treatment conditions. We came up with novel ways of capturing intended participation (through RSVPs to an Evite) and actual participation (through participants’ registering for raffle tickets as they entered the rally) that allowed us both to be systematic and to respect individuals’ expectations of confidentiality. Reported participation was measured through an online survey circulated after the event.


The primary hypothesis under investigation was that individuals are more likely to participate in contentious political events when doing so will win them social rewards. That is, people care about what others think of them and are willing to pursue the high-regard of their peers even if winning that kind of admiration is materially costly. Thus, ordinary citizens may be more likely to sacrifice their scarce time and effort to participate in contentious politics if they anticipate that their participation will be socially celebrated.

To test this hypothesis, some individuals in the study received invitations to the rally simply informing them of the time, place and purpose of the event; others, by contrast, received that information plus an explicit promise of social admiration – either through the promise of recognition of rally participants in the group’s newsletter or, alternatively, through the promise of “likes” on Facebook. I found that either promise of social admiration significantly boosted attendance at the rally in comparison to the information-only invitation.

The study thus provides new experimental evidence that our concern for others’ opinions matters for the political activities in which we engage. Who has the courage and will to engage in contentious political events? Commitment to a cause and information about how to participate likely matter, but even holding those factors constant, the promise of social rewards can make the difference between showing up and staying home.

About the Author: Gwyneth McClendon is an Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her article, “Social Esteem and Participation in Contentious Politics: A Field Experiment at an LGBT Pride Rally” appeared in the April 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.