Author Archives: jennabeaver

Inside the Brain of Occupy Wall Street

If Occupy Wall Street was a walking, talking individual, how would it operate?  What would it think?  In other words, how do the basic principles of human psychology work to explain the Occupy Wall Street movement?

The answer is not an easy one.  In fact, it’s really not a singular answer at all.  Occupy Wall Street, because of its diversity (we’re not talking race here, we’re talking everything! Think motives, people, places, times, etc), is almost impossible to peg into one (or even a few) psychological theories.

As explained in my previous posts, any one theory can be applied in a number of ways to the movement.  For example, group dynamics can make the movement either stronger or weaker, depending on the people and their goals.  These goals are nearly impossible to identify, as explained in Eimilealoisia’s post.  Even when a singular set of goals is created, it is rejected by the rest of the movement.  Without goals, the movement can hardly be deemed a success or failure, and without that kind of judgment, the direction and effectiveness of group dynamics is also hard to pin down.  Similarly, Eimilealoisia explains people’s motives for joining the movement.  Since so many individuals, groups, and nations are involved, nearly everyone has a different personal reason for their support or condemnation of the movement.  Therefore, to explain the movement as a whole’s theoretical reasons for acting the way it does would be illogical and unsuccessful.

Another psychological aspect of the movement relates to leadership.  As explained in my two posts on the issue (which can be accessed here and here), lack of leadership can be either harmful or helpful to a movement depending on its goals (which OWS has not defined…as you can see the argument gets circular here).  And lack of leadership it most certainly is.  OWS prides itself on not naming specific leaders.  Even those who speak in the General Assembly are not viewed as leaders, as explained by Meechiepeachie in A General Intro of the General Assembly.

Issues that define OWS’s core (its “brain” so to speak) such as lack of leadership, an absence of specific demands, and an array of varying motivations to join are what make the movement so hard to define in just a few words.

In other words, Occupy Wall Street is just too diverse in its mechanics to explain using just a few psychological theories.  Occupy Wall Street is leaderless, it involves deindividuation and group dynamics, it refuses to define itself with goals.  It cannot be explained with the same theories that explain the human mind, and for that reason the movement is larger than life.



Low May Day Turnout Reported

May Day Protests Seek to Rejuvinate Occupy Movement

An OWS protester holds up a May Day sign early morning on May 1, 2012.

An update on OWS’s May Day General Strike, which was planned in honor of International Workers Day.  Although it is still quite early in the day, the event seems to have gathered very few protesters. 


Leadership in the Movement

In my last post I summarized one perspective that lack of leadership is bad for the effectiveness of the OWS movement, in comparison to other great movements such as the American Revolution. 

Neil Ungerleider, a journalist at Fast Company, presents a different view in his article The Stealth Leaders of Occupy Wall Street.  Instead of pegging specific “leaders,” Ungerleider presents a list of nine “key players” in the movement including Adbusters, Anonymous, and the New York City General Assembly.  Four out of these nine “key players” are actually individuals rather than organizations.  Assuming these people are significant contributors to the movement as Ungerleider suggests, these names refute John Grohol’s argument (summarized in my previous post) that no one in OWS puts their name on the line in the face of controversy to better the cause. 

Whereas Grohol posits that OWS will not be successful because of its lack of leadership, Ungerleider suggests that the general assembly technique is very successful at accomplishing “things.”  What these “things” are, though, is yet to be evidenced by Ungerleider, and accomplishment can really only be measured on the spectrum of a specific, set goal, which OWS (debatedly) has not set. 

For more information on Ungerleider’s “key players” see his original article.


The New York Times Sums Up Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Movement (Occupy Wall Street) – New York Times

Occupy Wall Street Protesters (Robert Stolarik - New York Times)

A thorough article summarizing the progression of Occupy Wall Street can be found at the above link.  The article provides a relatively unbiased history of the movement including it’s manifestation and perception by various audiences.  It is a good place to start for those who are not particularly familiar with aspects of the movement such as protest tactics, national visibility, law enforcement involvement, and political reception. 


#FoundingFathers: What Would George Washington Think of OWS?

Founder and CEO of Psych Central John Grohol, Psy.D. is not Occupy Wall Street’s biggest fan.  In his article The Psychology of Occupy Wall Street, Grohol contrasts OWS with the American Revolution.  Hypothesizing a narrative of our Founding Fathers, Grohol describes the revolutionary group as saying:

“Here is what we stand for, here is what we want, and yes, we’re willing to wage war if necessary to attain our demands. Oh, and by the way — here are our names.”

In making this cross-century comparison, Grohol points out a very important obstacle in the way of OWS progress: the lack of a willingness for leader’s to put their name on the line.  Saying that OWS leaders lack true leadership and a vision for the movement, Grohol continues that without these two essential factors, the OWS movement will never have a revolutionary impact on the country like our Founding Fathers did. 

Grohol also points to OWS’s facade of inclusion, stating that any force of “occupation” is quite exclusive rather than inclusive, as OWS claims to be.  Because few Wall Street corporation’s offices actually reside in the places the protestors settle, the movement creates an offensive, foreign, excluding force to the majority of the residents of cities that are “occupied” without even reaching the coporate offices.  Historically, the word “occupy” has referred to forceful intrusions into an already established culture.  To exemplify this point, Grohol points to the Nazi Germany occupation of Poland and France.  So by its very nomenclature, Occupy Wall Street presents a hostile front while claiming to be an inclusive, nonviolent force for change.

Grohol’s comparison seems to be quite appropriate and easily understood in the context of his article.  If Occupy Wall Street wants to be successful they need to make a few key changes.  These include naming strong leaders, setting a focused and attainable goal, and presenting a more positive force in the communities the protestors occupy.


What We Have to Gain, continued

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.

Protestors with the OWS movement walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City on November 17, 2011.

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.


What We Have to Gain: Why Occupy Wall Street Defies the Laws of Social Psychology

It has been well established in the realm of social psychology that, when acting within a large group, individuals often become “deindividuated” (Ziller 344).  That is, the individual disappears within the group, and no longer feels the burden of individual responsibility.  This inhibition fuels behaviors that group members would not commit on their own, but because of the safety of a group identity, feel compelled to act in a way that is not consistent with the self (Ziller 344).  However, one important aspect of this theory is not as commonly discussed: when do individuals tend to deindividuate, and when do they choose to stand by themselves?

R.C. Ziller (1964) suggests that whether or not individuals take on the group identity depends on the level of reward or punishment offered by the actions of the group.  When a situation is likely to be rewarding, group members learn to individualize themselves within the group because they want to take credit for the actions that were or will be positively recognized.  Conversely, when the outcome is negative and involves punishment, individuals are more likely to fade into the group identity to diffuse responsibility among other group members.  With this set of parameters, Ziller brings about a compelling dichotomy to group dynamics.

In the Occupy Wall Street Movement, social media is commonly used to disseminate ideas and events quickly and efficiently to a large number of people, as is discussed in Wasik’s article.  Ziller’s theory can be easily applied to the movement and this use of social media forums, like Twitter.  The two types of action, based on reward and punishment, can be transparently overlayed onto the Twitter constructs of “Followers” and “Following” for any given individual involved in the movement to any degree (whether it be actively participating in the movement, or merely knowledgable that the movement exists). 

Occupy Wall Street protesters gather in New York City in October 2011.

On Twitter, individuals can “follow” other Twitter accounts so that they receive updates from these users.  In OWS, Twitter is used to quickly get the word out about events and other happenings within the movement.  By “following” OWS-related Twitter accounts, people become “deindividuated” within the group.  That is, the group associates with them, but the individual can choose whether or not to associate with the group by ignoring, endorsing, participating in, or condemning the tweet.  On the other side, this same user also has “Followers” of his or her own.  When a person chooses to tweet about the movement, he or she is making a conscious effort to individualize the self from the group.  That is, the individual is taking credit for and acknowledging membership within the movement.

R.C. Ziller’s theory applies to Twitter in that it hypothesizes that individuals at first choose to “follow” the movement-based Twitter account as an effort to ‘test the water.’  These individuals do not yet know whether the outcome of being in such a group will be rewarding or punishing, so they remain deindividualized.  Once an individual feels comfortable with the movement and feels that there will be some type of reward for being involved, he or she chooses to individualize the self by publishing or citing tweets that endorse or condemn the movement.  Thus, by tweeting, the individual takes credit for his or her stance. 

R.C. Ziller’s theory serves to teach us that it’s really all about the outcomes: if good things happen within OWS, individuals will likely try to take credit for themselves, while if bad things happen surrounding the movement, individuals disappear into the group identity.  This rapid fluctuation of loyalty to the cause makes OWS quite volatile: if people are not instinctually driven to remain loyal to the group when the group’s actions are rewarded, the movement is liable to fall apart as soon as it comes close to reaching a major success. 

Thus, it would be to the great advantage of the group to offer rewards beyond recognition for its members.  Here we see something that Ziller did not discuss in detail: the goal of a mass movement.  OWS retains strong members throughout its ups and downs because it promises to create change for those involved, i.e. the 99%.  Although social theories like that of R. C. Ziller are largely applicable to group protests, Occupy Wall Street proves unique in its enduring nature and promise to create change for its members.