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Why do we bother?

Raj Persaud
BSc MSc MB BS MPhil FRCPsych
Consultant Psychiatrist  The Maudsley Hospital London
Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry

Why do people do the things they do? An obvious answer is because they believe that it will lead to the kind of outcome they desire. Yet increasingly psychologists have uncovered a large set of behaviours whereby people participate in an action, in the full and complete knowledge that it will not have the desired effect at all.
Why do people do things that are to all intents and purposes useless? A good example of this is why do people go on political demonstrations. Previously it had been argued that those who join protest marches do so because they believe such an action, often costly in terms of personal time and energy, will produce the desired political change.
Such behaviour always seemed puzzling to many who never participated in public demonstrations because it was obvious to the bystanders that most of such actions were completely without effect. If everyone knows you are wasting your time going on a march then why do it?
A team of psychologists at the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that in fact often times we do what we do not because we believe it will have a desired outcome, but more because such actions are expressions of our identity. It's this key psychological process - identifying with a set of values or causes, which appears to be a previously misunderstood primary motivator.
They point out there is accumulating research that participants in political demonstrations already know full well that their actions will have no impact on the authorities whatsoever. They cite previous studies in support of this contention including an investigation where 114 Dutch participants were interviewed shortly before a major rally protesting against NATO's decision to deploy cruise missiles in Europe. The authors of that study concluded: "None of the respondents was very optimistic about the effectiveness of the demonstration; those who intended to demonstrate were no exception. None of them believed that the deployment of the cruise missiles could be stopped."
Basically psychologists now argue that the resulting effectiveness of a demonstration actually plays a relatively minor role in galvanising participants to join, and instead a major contributor to whether we engage in what is termed "collective action" is the extent to which we internalise an identity as an activist. So a lot of our behaviour can now be conceptualised as driven by our desire to establish our identity to ourselves and in the eyes of others - to define who we are and what we stand for by actions such as taking a stand on an issue.
An intriguing test of this theory is that it predicts we might be more motivated to "take a stand" publicly the more we feel different to those around us and the more we feel isolated by this sense. Taking a public stand then becomes about group solidarity - we want to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with others who share our views. Establishing our identity is about declaring and finding those we feel we are like and differentiating ourselves from those we feel different to.
The team argues that public acts of defiance help to "nourish and define" one's sense of self, a motive completely at variance with whether the act of defiance actually succeeds in producing political change.
Consistent with this theory the team found that people with strong moral convictions are keener to engage in public (but not private) collective action when they believe they are in a minority position than when they are in the majority. Hornsey and his group argue from this evidence that public acts of counter-conformity are not about directly changing the world but more about expressing values.
There are several implications for nurses of this research - it is interesting to note for example that nurses are actively discouraged from assertive or aggressive actions to defend their salaries, status, working conditions, professional status and autonomy from attacks by government or management by frequent appeals to the idea of nurses' core identity centring around care for patients. The constant appeal to caring for patients helps distract nurses from standing up for themselves because it says if you are not constantly and always looking after patients you are not a "proper nurse". This attack on core identity is so powerful it stops this professional group dead in its tracks. To protest is seen as anti-ethical to this core identity and therefore is a psychologically effective way of discouraging nurses from taking more direct action in protest at their predicaments.
Nurses may need to take control and redefine their own sense of identity. Perhaps if caring for oneself and for one's colleagues was seen as a core part of nurses' identity, they would find it easier to take collective action on their own behalf. This might not go as far as industrial action but could include relatively small scale acts of collective solidarity aimed at securing better conditions and less injustice in the way nurses are treated by the NHS.
Often to be effective in getting our way we have to act collectively, but a key obstacle to this are concerns over effectiveness of such high profile and therefore potentially damaging actions - particularly if conducted in the workplace. Instead one key way of getting others to help us attain our goals is to identify core identity issues and help us define ourselves by who we act with and who we oppose.
"What kind of person are you" becomes the implicity psychological message in your attempts to persuade others to do what you want rather than a focus on the resulting effects of such an action.

Hornsey M, et al. Why do people engage in collevtive action? Revisiting the role of perceived effectiveness. J Appl Soc Psychol 2006;36:1701-22.