The psychology of radical social change


Revolutions resemble earthquakes. Suddenly and often unexpectedly there emerges a rupture in a society that leads to turmoil in economics, the social order, and human states of mind. At all levels of a society under revolution expectations arise that life will never be the same. Yet there is often a rift between the particular expectations that arise and the actual changes that come about through revolutions.  The French Revolution of 1789 shattered the whole of Europe and led to transformations of political and social orders as well as further revolutions. Empires end yet they turn into new forms of social organization, which often resemble old ones. Our times are not different.

Since 2011 the World has seen an explosion of popular uprisings that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Beginning in January with the ousting of Tunisian president Ben Ali and followed by Egypt’s removal of Mubarak in February, these uprisings quickly spread globally. Old regimes were toppled and new regimes could be observed in the process of their germination. In between were various efforts to create democratic forms of governance. This is not an easy task in societies where a mentality open to difference has not been prepared. Thus, acceptance of the opponent’s differing political perspective and the negotiation of power through elections have not easily taken root.

Democratic governance requires more than free elections and public accountability; citizens must possess democratic values, habits and ways of relating to others for it to succeed. The chaos of public life in most of these societies has been filled with various forms of protest, some associated with radical and violent movements.

Protests are theatrical events. They are carefully scripted through antagonism, slogans, claims for justice and fairness, and many other reasons that might legitimize the events in the eyes of the public. Today they tend to be directed to television cameras and through those to audiences in countries far away. After 2011 European countries saw widespread protests against governments’ economic austerity programs, the United States the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Brazil experienced forceful protests leading up to the World Cup and beyond in the wake of widespread political scandals. Yet no revolution followed from these occupations.

Only under certain conditions do protests escalate and proceed to military conflicts and civil wars. Recent social power struggles in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq are examples. The transition from protests to military actions is an orchestration skill that politicians learn by doing—and social scientists need to learn before politicians get involved in doing it. 

The word ‘revolution’ is itself ambiguous as it shares family resemblances with other terms (e.g., ‘uprising,’ ‘revolt,’ ‘insurgency,’ ‘protest’), making precise definitions difficult. These terms imply different kinds and levels of societal ruptures, as well as different value orientations. Many different conditions have to be in place for a revolution to occur, whereas the other terms can be seen as parts of or precursors to revolutions.

The most strict definitions of revolutions say there must be mass mobilization driven by a clear ideology which not only changes the nation’s leadership but also its institutions, practices, and mentalities.  Few events in history satisfy these requirements—perhaps only the French, Russian, Chinese and Haitian revolutions. More often than not we only find a change of leadership. Taking over the existing social power positions does not necessarily transform the given society. In fact, power transfers – even violent ones—tend to preserve the rules by which power games are being enacted.

What creates the conditions for these social upheavals, what are the dynamics of their evolution, and why do they so often fail to bring about lasting changes? To answer these questions we need to recognize that revolutions are as much about ideas, mentalities, habits and group processes as they are about economics and political calculation. In his celebrated The Crowd: A study of the popular mind, Le Bon (1896) was one of the first to formulate a psychological theory, which was focused on understanding the behavior of urban masses. Building on an analogy of the hypnotist-patient, he put leader-crowd dynamics and collective mentalities front and center. Le Bon analyzed how the repetition of suggestive images, slogans and symbols that connect up with a group’s collective past work motivate them in a common direction. In this way he saw crowds to be essentially conservative at core.  

The second wave of psychological theorists of revolution emerged in the 1960s. The most notable of these explained revolution through the lens of ‘relative deprivation’. Davies (1962) argued that revolutions are not sparked by people living in poverty comparing themselves to those living in luxury, but rather as a result aggression following frustrated expectations. Revolutions are preceded by improvements that people expect will continue. When their situation declines they are left with an ‘intolerable gap’ between what they want and what they get. This is the moment in which a revolution occurs, not before. One of the major problems of this model is it fails to explain how it works under different social-political conditions, involves people’s situated meaning making of the situation and leads to different revolutionary outcomes. A psychology that studies the emergence of revolutions needs to be contextual and focused on processes of change.

Moghaddam (2013) has recently made a useful distinction between three levels or systems of social change. The First-order system concerns both formal law and the informal normative system that justifies group-based injustices—for example, arguments legitimizing slavery put forward in ancient Greece, during European colonial conquests, the southern United States until the mid-19th century. The Second-order system has a reformed formal law, but the informal normative system continues to justify group-based injustices. After the abolition of slavery in the United States, discrimination against African Americans continued and was upheld by the informal normative system. A third-order system is one in which both the formal law and the informal normative system support group-based justice. Such concordance can be found in some Occidental societies that have developed solid democratic governance systems under the conditions of relative economic prosperity. This is an ideal that many participants in revolutions strive for, but it is difficult for such a system to come out of the confrontational ethos of demolishing “the old regimes” that is usual in revolutions. The changes brought about by most revolutions are within-system, not between-system. This means that both formal and normative systems retain the same structure despite surface level changes.

In practice, this leads, as predicted by elite theory (Pareto, 1935), to cycles of counter-elite revolution being followed by the counter-elite becoming the new elite and simply continuing to rule in the same way. The king is dead, long live the king! The Shah is overthrown, long reign the Supreme Leader! Mubarak is gone, hoorah for el-Sisi! Pareto warns us not to be misled by rhetoric and labels, but to notice the continuity of elite rule over the non-elite, even though the new regime has changed the official rhetoric and now refers to the nation as ‘communist’ or ‘Islamic Republic’ or ‘democracy’.  These dynamics are made possible by the continuity of citizen’s behavior patterns before and after revolutions. As underlined by Moghaddam in 2018, politicians effectively come up with new slogans to signal change but at a deeper level appeal to people’s familiar ways of thinking and acting. 

To conclude, it is worth reflecting on the recent ‘mouvement des gilets jaunes’ from the standpoint of the psychology of social change. In line with relative deprivation theory, people probably expected better living conditions on the back of France’s strong economic growth in 2017. But 2018 turned out to be much less rosy and growth was felt rather unevenly between rich and poor. While Macron did away with the wealth tax on the rich, he added a fuel tax that would be most felt by the poor. As Le Bon analyzed, these taxes became symbols of larger perceived unfair inequalities in French society. They were thus potent flashpoints for the protests that united different sectors of the population under a common banner. Ireland recently experienced similar protests on the back of a water tax. The ‘gilet jaune’ is itself a powerful image for orchestrating protest, with its link to driving and bright colour, and has itself spread to other countries where it is appropriated for new ends, such as to Brexiters in Britain. These French protests have certainly put pressure on the government and led to some concessions but it is currently unclear by what means they could lead to deeper and more lasting social changes.


Davies, J. (1962). Toward a theory of revolution. American Sociological Review, 27, 5-18.

Le Bon, G. (1895/2002). The Crowd: A study of the popular mind. New York: Dover. 

Moghaddam, F. M. (2013). The psychology of dictatorship. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association Press.

Moghaddam, F.M. (2018).  Political plasticity and revolution: The case of Iran.  In B. Wagoner, F.M. Moghaddam & J. Valsiner (eds.), The Psychology of Radical Social Change (pp. 122-139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Pareto, V. (1935). The mind and society: A treatise on general sociology (vols. 1-4). New York: Dover.

Power, S. (2018). Economic inequality and the rise of civil discontent: Deprivation and remembering in an Irish case study. In B. Wagoner, F.M. Moghaddam & J. Valsiner (eds.), The Psychology of Radical Social Change (pp. 29-53). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Wagoner, B. (2018). From the age of the crowd to the global age. In B. Wagoner, F.M. Moghaddam & J. Valsiner (eds.), The Psychology of Radical Social Change (pp. 86-99). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Wagoner, B., Glaveanu, V., Bresco, I. (eds.) (2018). The Road to Actualized Democracy: A psychological exploration. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age. 


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