When people support the need for social change but abstain from helping or participating to avoid the perceived costs and risks involved, this is known as free-riding. As rational actors, non-participants suppose that they will eventually reap the benefits achieved by others who participate and incur those costs and risks without having to contribute themselves.
The civil rights movement exemplifies this conundrum. Images of protesters being sprayed with high powered water hoses and attacked by police dogs permeated the news. This certainly discouraged a number of would-be participants from signing up. Likewise, those who come out in support of gay rights face discrimination, and some have even lost their jobs as a result (Taylor and Raeburn 1995). Participation can be scary, and it is easy to rationalize that it would be safer to stay at home and let others do the dirty work.
When protest can be so dangerous, how do movements motivate participation?
The problem for movements is that, if everyone free-rides, the common good cannot be achieved. If many participate, on the other hand, the costs and risks are more widely distributed and social change is more easily achieved. There are several ways that free-riding can be overcome, but I will specifically mention three: appealing to altruistic norms, making individual participation visible, and building a group identity.
Appealing to Altruism
As was discussed in earlier essays, there are several social norms that facilitate pro-social behavior. The norm of reciprocity suggests that individuals can be expected to return favors (so activists giving small gifts might expect recipients to be more easily persuaded). However, the norm of social responsibility finds that people will often help with no expectation of return at all. Clear appeals to would-be free-riders may help overcome the desire to stay back.
Highlighting Individual Participation
Recognizing each contributor is also vital. When individuals are made accountable for their contributions, they are more likely to continue participating. When people are made to feel invisible or are unwelcomed, it isn’t likely that they will be sticking around. Voting is a great example of how this can go wrong. The rational actor recognizes that their individual vote is not likely to sway the outcome of the election, and therefore may feel little incentive to go out of their way to participate. Political campaigns try to remedy this with personalized appeals through post and text.
Social movements have historically overcome this problem with good communication and the deployment of smaller groups. In the 21st century, however, most social movements have adopted a larger, more bureaucratic organizational structure to maximize resource mobilization. This model reduces opportunities for individual-level communication and makes it difficult for participants to feel as though their contributions are noticed and meaningful.
Donating $20 to PETA for an annual membership seems like a drop in a large, anonymous bucket, but donating an hour of time with a grassroots organization has a more tangible impact. The communication, feedback, and community experienced at the grassroots level are far more motivating than generic donation requests and online petitions.
Nurturing Group Identity
Likewise, group identity can be a powerful motivator (Armstrong 2002). Identity creates a sense of belonging and a sense of responsibility to the group. Indeed, researchers have pointed to group identity as essential for sustaining veganism in a world that is otherwise hostile to the practice (Cherry 2006). For movements, there is an imperative to overcome individualistic approaches to social change, as isolation and alienation discourage participation.
Read more about free-riding in the context of Nonhuman Animal rights here.
For the Vegan Toolkit
- Foster networks and communities
- Emphasize why individual contributions matter
- Acknowledge individual contributions
- Reduce unnecessary costs, risks, or dangers associated with participation
- Emphasize rewards to participation
Armstrong, E. 2002. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Cherry, E. 2006. “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach.” Social Movement Studies 5 (2): 155-170.
Taylor, V. and N. Raeburn. 1995. “Identity Politics as High-Risk Activism: Career Consequences for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Sociologists.” Social Problems 42 (2): 252-273.
Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.
This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.