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Emotional and Problem-Focused Activism

A new paper finds proximity to a goal predicts different approaches to activism.

Key points

  • Behavioral motivation adopts either an emotional or problem-solving approach.
  • Goal proximity triggers different motivational systems.
  • Framing narratives around perceived injustice may be most effective for triggering action early in a new movement.

It is well observed in motivation research that moving closing to a valued goal improves self-efficacy and maintains an interest in working towards our targets. For example, when we're trying to get in shape, as we see positive changes in our appearance, we see that the gym is working, which motivates us to keep up with our workouts. However, does the same principle hold when thinking about social goals?

Clay Banks via Unsplash
Collective action is on the rise in many western democracies.
Source: Clay Banks via Unsplash

According to new research, proximity to a goal can lead to different modes of activism being activated. When social goals (e.g., gender and racial equality) are seen as being distant, this motivates an emotional approach to activism by activating a sense of injustice. In contrast, when they near a point of achievement, it may feel as though collective action and the enactment of specific policies make a tangible difference. Therefore, a problem-focused approach is triggered.

As Lea Hartwich, the lead researcher on the project explained:

I was thinking about how different the circumstances of social movements can be when it comes to their chances of success or the way they still have to go to achieve their aims.

From previous research, we know that both a sense of injustice and a belief in success are important pathways for people to participate in protests and other actions. Understanding when it might be most effective to focus on which pathway can be beneficial to social movements but also adds to our theoretical models of collective action.

Goal Proximity Determines the Activists' Path

Across three studies involving more than 1,000 German residents, the research team found evidence for their hypotheses. Interestingly, goal proximity was manipulated experimentally. For example, when considering gender equality in higher education, participants were told that the current percentage of female professors was either 10, 20, 30, or 40 percent, with higher numbers indicating increasing closeness to the stated goal of 50 percent.

When goal proximity was perceived to be low (i.e., 10 percent or 20 percent of professors being female), participants expressed a higher level of perceived injustice, which motivated intentions to engage in collective action (e.g., joining a demonstration or protest), Hartwich and colleagues suggested that this might represent emotionally-motivated collective action intention.

In contrast, when goal proximity was high (i.e., 40 percent of professors being female), activist policies were perceived as being more effective, which in turn led to increased intentions to engage in collective action. This pathway to activism might best be referred to as problem-focused, as it is a more calculated way of identifying whether a given policy is incrementally working to achieve a stated goal.

Importantly, goal proximity itself did not predict intentions to engage in protests or activism. Instead, the influence of goal proximity worked specifically through perceptions of either injustice or efficacy.

Speaking about the results, Hartwich–who is currently a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Osnabruck University, Germany, said:

The key take-home message is actually quite encouraging, I think: when a social movement is still far away from reaching its goal, people don’t perceive its chances of success very high–but that doesn’t affect their overall motivation to participate because at the same time, their sense of injustice is higher, compared to when the goal is within reach.

Kickstarting Campaigns With Emotional Narratives

Considering these data's context, it is interesting to consider how new social movements begin. At the very start of a new civil rights campaign, or social justice movement, are appeals to injustice. From Hartwich and colleagues' data, we can see that these appeals trigger the emotional pathway to collective action, which appears to be difficult to achieve when goals are far away.

This is confirmed by Hartwich, who said "Therefore, aiming for changes that may seem unrealistic in the short term does not have to be a disadvantage as long as a movement can create a narrative that stresses the injustice of the status quo."

What is unclear at the moment is whether such motivational processes differ between occasional protest-goers and die-hard activist and movement organizers. However, these data shine an important light on how and why individuals engage in collective social action.

The research is now published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.


Hartwich, L., Radke, H. R. M., Kutlaa, M., & Becker, J. C. (2022). The injustice-efficacy tradeoof: Counteracting indirect effects of goal proximity on collective action. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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