embers of the protest group Just Stop Oil recently threw soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery in London. The action once again triggered debate about what kinds of protest are most effective.
After a quick clean of the glass, the painting was back on display. But critics argued that the real damage had been done, by alienating the public from the cause itself (the demand that the UK government reverse its support for opening new oil and gas fields in the North Sea).
Fossil fuel protesters charged after tomato soup thrown on Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in London gallery
Supporters of more militant forms of protest often point to historical examples such as the suffragettes. In contrast with Just Stop Oil’s action, when the suffragette Mary Richardson went to the National Gallery to attack a painting called The Rokeby Venus, she slashed the canvas, causing major damage.
However, many historians argue that the contribution of the suffragettes to women getting the vote was negligible or even counterproductive. Such discussions often seem to rely on people’s gut feelings about the impact of protest. But as a professor of cognitive psychology, I know that we don’t have to rely on intuition — these are hypotheses that can be tested.
The activist’s dilemma
In one set of experiments researchers showed people descriptions of protests and then measured their support for the protesters and the cause. Some participants read articles describing moderate protests such as peaceful marches. Others read articles describing more extreme and sometimes violent protests, for example a fictitious action in which animal rights activists drugged a security guard in order to break into a lab and remove animals.
Protesters who undertook extreme actions were perceived to be more immoral, and participants reported lower levels of emotional connection and social identification with these “extreme” protesters. The effects of this kind of action on support for the cause were somewhat mixed (and negative effects may be specific to actions that incorporate the threat of violence).
READ MORE: Three arguments why Just Stop Oil was right to target Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”
Overall, these results paint a picture of the so-called activist’s dilemma: activists must choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and more extreme actions that succeed in gaining attention, but may be counterproductive to their aims as they tend to make people think less of the protesters.