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Why Do Some of Us Take Action and Others Stand Idly By?

A new book says you might want to blame your slacktivism on your brain.

A woman prepares to speak at a #BlackLivesMatter protest of the death of inmate Sarah Reed. Image via Flickr user Wasi Daniju (cc).

Donald Trump. Police brutality. Income disparity. Diminished reproductive rights. There’s certainly no shortage of outrage-inducing topics these days, but that doesn’t change the fact that real work is required to bring about true reform and social justice. Yet all too often, even the most passionate among us slip into slacktivism, dispatching the occasional hashtag or Facebook scuffle rather than finding ways to get involved and actually do something to address the issues we care the most about.

There’s a reason we do this, and it isn’t because millennials are self-entitled, or because we’re all hypocrites. It actually has to do with the way our brains naturally evaluate risk—making us more reluctant to take on the responsibilities of true activism.


Vetting risk is a complex brain calculation. While researching this topic for my new book The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance, I uncovered some compelling neuroscience related to the moment when humans weigh a bold decision. It all comes down to what’s happening with one special circuit in your brain—the mesocortical limbic circuit, to be precise—as it draws information from the outside world and your past experiences to help you decide whether to move forward or stay put. When you make that risky decision, you’re using something called the insula. It’s a small region with big reach, helping you form visceral memories and opinions.

Your seemingly innate sense of right and wrong is actually shaped by this tiny region in your brain. “It’s a highly developed structure,” says Abigail Baird, a brain researcher at Vassar College. “You aren’t born with these gut feelings about things. You have to learn them. But once it is developed, you tend to get an almost automatic response when you are trying to decide whether or not to do something.”

That automatic insula-fueled response is helpful only when you have the right knowledge and experience to back it up. And when it comes to assessing whether to actively get involved in a social justice movement—whether by attending or organizing a protest event, calling your representatives, signing a petition, or making a truly dramatic statement—too much of the wrong information in your neural circuitry may be clouding your judgment.

Let me explain. If you watch the nightly news, you might think there are more negative outcomes than positive when it comes to social activism. Your brain is crowded with vague recollections about protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, getting arrested, Planned Parenthood volunteers being harassed and threatened with physical violence, or an individual getting his phone destroyed by Miami police for recording them shooting someone 100 times.

Those negative outcomes influence your decision making, even if you’re not aware of it. The brain’s vetting process is primal and often inescapable. Your insula simply holds a lot of sway over your risk calculation, subtly making you doubt your safety, or whether you, an individual, are actually capable of making a real contribution to a particular social justice movement. So when you’re considering, even in an unconscious way, how to support the causes that move you the most, your brain is doing a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the risks of taking action against the risks of doing something like tweeting your outrage from the safety of your own home.

What your brain is missing is data: transparent information about the actual process of social justice—which is by no means limited to tear gas or rash decisions. Whether we’re talking about big business ventures or founding #BlackLivesMatter, making risk work to your advantage requires a series of small steps and adjustments. No matter how sudden any headline-inspiring social progress may seem, it’s likely that days, weeks, or even years of planning went into that movement’s success, long before CNN ever realized an event might be worth a little ink.

To really understand how this works, it may be best to look back to long before the advent of hashtag causes like #OscarsSoWhite or #OccupyWallStreet. So let’s dig into an iconic social justice moment: Martin Luther King Jr.’s partly ad-libbed “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. King and other social justice leaders started to organize the march, an event originally intended to support President Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation, more than a year earlier.

King and his colleagues worked diligently to keep things calm to avoid inciting any disruptive (and potentially violence-inducing) civil disobedience actions. When King walked up to that microphone, he was prepared. So when Mahalia Jackson asked him to tell the world about his dream, he could take a risk and successfully improvise, having refined his thoughts on dreams and social progress in a dozen sermons and speeches before that day.

This single moment—arguably the most important in civil rights history—was a mix of spontaneity and meticulous planning. Of course, all the preparation in the world could never entirely remove risk from the equation. To believe that would be naïve—whether you’re leading a march of more than 100,000 disenfranchised folks on the Capitol or standing down a police officer with only your smartphone camera and knowledge of your rights to protect you.

What practice, research, and organization can do for you, however, is keep your insula in check. Social justice, in any form, is a risky proposition. But the outcomes, negative or positive, don’t tell the whole story. The process that led to those outcomes is every bit as important. It’s likely that the activists who inspire you the most spent a lot of time weighing their options, doing mundane work like securing permits and making old-fashioned phone calls alongside more newsworthy outbursts. And through their efforts, they surely decided that taking action was less dangerous than standing idly by.

So the next time you find yourself getting pissed off about something you care about, give your insula a little more data before complacency sets in. It really is that easy. Connect with the organizations aligned to your goals and learn everything you can about the pros and cons of getting involved. Chances are, the hazards won’t be as severe as your brain suggests. Even if they are, your voice and skills really do have the power to do great good. So why not give it a try?

Here are a few ways you can better understand the risks involved with a movement, push past your fears, and actually do something that matters.

Stop trusting your gut.

You probably aren’t avoiding taking action intentionally. Most of the time, you’re not even aware you’re doing it. But years of news reports, scary tweets, and warnings from trusted family members or authority figures have built up over time. And it’s likely that some part of you believes that you, or your experience, is unneeded or even unwanted in certain movements.

But what your gut is telling you may in fact be at odds with what you truly desire (not to mention reality). If you listen to immediate, often fear-based, feelings, you’ll have no hope of discovering an organization’s real process or needs. You need reliable and accurate information to make the right choice. So make a call, send an email, get in touch, and learn more about what getting involved really means. You’ll soon find out that the majority of social progress work happens way outside the front lines—and a wider variety of voices and backgrounds are sorely needed.

Find the right partners.

For any social justice movement, you can find dozens of organizations that are working toward a particular objective. Look for the organization that best fits your beliefs, your morals, and your personal goals. When you find the right partners, you will discover that they will help you just as much as you help them achieve their vision for progress.

Know your role.

Social progress movements are organizations like any other, leveraging a variety of strengths and skill sets. Some people enjoy the limelight. Others work better behind the scenes. Understand what kind of role will make you the most comfortable, and how you can add the most value.

Make your connections count.

Social media, no doubt, has been a powerful force in a variety of social justice movements. But your contribution has to go beyond adding random hashtags to your postings. Use your social media platforms to connect with like-minded organizations and individuals. Then use those connections to learn more about where your voice and skills can do the most good.

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via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

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