Believing in “Making a Difference” Makes a Difference


Featured Image: Cambodians protest election irregularities. Credit: Heng Reaksmey, Voice of America.

Would you vote in an election if you believed your side will handily win? Would you join a social movement if it probably won’t take hold? What would make the difference?

One of the most studied questions in social science asks, “What makes people come together and act as a group?” And after years and years of research, we’re still not quite sure why some answers are so weird. Like why would a person be motivated to join if they believe their side will already win?

“If rational actors expect their group to achieve its goals with or without their own participation, they should remain inactive,” says a new study by Martijn van Zomeren, a social psychologist at the Dutch University of Groningen.

But that’s not what we see in that case. Instead, you see many people joining anyway, while others wouldn’t join regardless.

Van Zomeren and colleagues have a heady answer: participative efficacy.

It has to do with how effective we believe ourselves to be, he tells Explorer:

“Efficacy beliefs are absolutely pivotal” for us humans, van Zomeren said. “They enable us to assess the extent to which our own actions will achieve the goals we value. Whether that’s to participate in a demonstration, sign a petition or donate for charity.

“It seems important that individuals feel that their own contribution to a larger collective effort can make a difference.”

In other words, you may believe in your own personal efficacy for personal goals. You might believe that the group is very effective. But the idea that your own participation makes a difference – makes a difference for whether we join or not.

People have all sorts of personal and cultural reasons for partaking in a group’s efforts, but across cultures, these efficacy beliefs seem to be important in their own right.

Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was “Yes We Can!” said van Zomeren. But a better (though less catchy) one would be, “Yes we can – and you can be a part of that change!”

The study, “Believing in ‘Making a Difference’ to Collective Efforts: Participative Efficacy as a Unique Predictor of Collective Action,” was published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.