What Makes an Activist

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Make a Difference BannerWhat leads someone to become an activist? Research shows parental beliefs, individual personality and a sense of community can all prime someone for a role as an activist.

We all recognize the protestors among us: neighbors who circulate petitions for clean-air bills, animal-rights groups in the subway harassing elderly women in fur coats, students calling for peace. We often share their convictions, but voice them in a whisper. So what distinguishes the demonstrators from the do-nothings?

The fact is, activists choose to take up causes for a wide variety of reasons—some not as straightforward as they might seem.

To start, take a look at Mom and Dad. Parental modeling can play a significant role in shaping future activists, according to Lauren Duncan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Smith College who has studied activism. She found that students with a parent who fought in Vietnam were much more likely to protest against the 1991 Gulf War than those whose parents were not war veterans. “Parents teach their kids [what they believe are] appropriate ways to respond to particular situations,” explains Duncan.

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