In my previous post (which can be accessed here), I discussed psychologist R. C. Ziller’s theory which relates reward and punishment to group dynamic. In short, Ziller proposes that in rewarding situations, individuals separate themselves from the group in order to take credit. Conversely, individuals tend to disappear within the group identity when punishing outcomes are present in order to diffuse responsibility.
The way in which OWS relates to this theory, or really any psychological theory, is complicated because of the diverse nature of the movement itself. The movement has grown quite large, and it would be impossible to identify a singular theory that explains the actions of all those involved. I still find Ziller’s theory to be fascinating when it comes to the Occupy movement, and so I will try to clarify some of the possible rewards and punishments in the movement that his theory can apply to.
First, we will look at a very primitive example of reward and punishment in the movement. On November 17, 2011 thousands of protestors marched across Brooklyn Bridge (the full story can be read here). About 24 were arrested for walking out into the bridge’s roadway. Why didn’t others walk out into the roadway in support? Ziller would state that in the presence of a punishing force (being arrested) people tend to stay deindividuated in the crowd to avoid being singled out, which is why the other thousands of people who weren’t arrested remained out of the road. If everyone had moved onto the roadway at once, the police would not have possibly been able to arrest everyone, and the crowd dynamics would have shifted to require that individuals step onto the roadway to remain deindividuated. The physical movement of a crowd is one very simple example of Ziller’s theory.
When applied to Twitter, Ziller’s theory takes on a much more complicated application. It is nearly impossible to interpret the perceived rewards or punishments for any individual in the ‘Twitterverse,’ and therefore Ziller’s theory could be successfully applied or disproven at any given moment in this social media forum. As someone who is really no more involved in OWS than my participation in this blog takes me, I can use my own hypothetical tweeting as an example:
I am a pretty average college student, with Twitter followers who fall on both sides of the movement (those who support it and those who do not). Say I follow @OccupyWallSt (the movement’s Twitter account) and decide to retweet one of their posts one day. The possible rewards I face: feeling like I am taking part in an important social movement, praise from my friends for my “activism,” social acceptance in the peer group who supports the movement, and maybe even helping the movement to become more widespread and thus, in the long, long, long run more effective. The possible punishments: criticism from my friends who are against OWS…and that’s really about it. Since I perceive that the possible rewards for retweeting are greater than the punishments, I take a shot at individualizing myself and retweeting OWS’s post.
In a converse situation where I perceive the punishments as outweighing the rewards, I would probably choose to remain a follower of the OWS account, but not to put myself out there as an individual by retweeting. As you can see, the ways in which Ziller’s theory apply to the Occupy movement and Twitter are incredibly diverse and situation-dependent.
The varying rewards and punishments for any given individual are constantly changing due to the individual’s and movement’s needs and environment. Below is an example of an individual tweeting about the movement in order to get someone to help him or her move some books (clearly a rewarding situation.) The individual chooses to individualize within the movement in hopes of gaining a favor.
In the end, the application of any existing social theory to Occupy Wall Street is essentially useless in that it will not endure the test of a large array of diverse situations, a test which any good theory should pass. So I’ve come to the conclusion that theory is not so effective in explaining Occupy Wall Street. But using Occupy Wall Street to explain theory, that’s another issue for another post. And that is the complicated, situation-dependent, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, ever-changing reason why Occupy Wall Street defies the laws of social psychology.