by Rachel MacNairDecember 11, 2018
Nonviolent resistance is based on understanding that power isn’t physical, something people “hold on to,” but it is psychological. Power comes from people’s cooperation, and it dissolves when they stop. When people lose confidence in rulers, and those rulers use fear to get compliance, that’s repression. Though being competent at governing would be more stable in ensuring the needed cooperation, people who order repression don’t grasp this basic point. They’ve had positive experiences with getting the behavior they want through fear.
So, what can psychology tell us?
There aren’t many studies, but there are a couple of historical cases:
One study shows how several South African political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, dealt with abuse at Robben Island from the mid-1960s to 1991. The assertively friendly interactions the prisoners offered the guards had their effect.
In another study, in the 2000 Serbian movement to oust Milosevic and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, organizers developed strategies to undermine the willingness of the agents of repression to commit violence against them. There was no major crackdown in these two cases.
Why do people engage in repressive violence? Lab experiments trying to figure out what makes people more likely to also tell us what makes people less likely to.
In the 1960s, with the recent Nazi experience in mind, Stanley Milgram thought he’d find out why Germans were more likely than Americans to act destructively in response to demands of authority. He was startled to discover Americans also likely to do so. The same happened across many countries.
Participants in the experiment were told by an experimenter wearing a lab coat to ask questions of a “learner” who was on the other side of a wall. Every time the “learner” answered a question incorrectly, participants were told to turn a dial and push a button that would administer increasing levels of electric shocks to the “learner” (in fact, no shocks were delivered, but the participants did not know this). As participants administered shocks in increasing severity, they would hear cries of pain by the “learner” on the other side of the wall, until the learner became unresponsive (pretending to be unconscious). About two-thirds of participants administered shocks all the way up to the highest level—the most severe shock.
But there were dramatic drops in getting all the way to the top under the following conditions:
A broken contract accounts for the timing of many nonviolent rebellions—a stolen election, say, can trigger one.
When agents of repression are getting orders from a distant source, that can mean less compliance. Not that activists can cause this, of course, but they can notice when it’s happening and take advantage.
The very fact of a nonviolent uprising is like the staged experiment across the room—people who won’t start a rebellion will still join one, but they need a model.
And nonviolent rebellions can be most effective when there are authorities arguing with each other. Say, a repressive government is countered by the church, the imams, the Buddhist monks, or admired celebrities. Or a movement skillfully identifies and exacerbates divisions among ruling groups, causing them to disagree or become confused about how to respond.
Another lab experiment focused on why people repress is the Stanford Prison Experiment, where participants were put in a simulated prison. The experiment was supposed to go two weeks, but had to shut down after six days. Participants got into a madhouse of social roles—with those assigned the role of prisoner starting to internalize that role, and those assigned as guards beginning to become abusive. Even the experimenters started to think like prison administrators.
The reason it was finally shut down was that an outsider with some authority—the fiancée of the main experimenter—came in later and saw it with fresh eyes, rather than participating in the build-up of emotions. So she intervened, and did on a small scale what nonviolent social movements do on a large scale.
The field of peace psychology puts a focus on causes of violence, similar to how medicine focuses on the causes of disease. Just as medicine uses this knowledge for the practical purpose of preventing and curing diseases, peace psychology uses knowledge on how to counter violence. While violence prevention is always the first choice, once oppressive regimes are in place, the cure comes with nonviolent action. Psychology is one of the many fields that can tell us why this works and how to make it more effective.