Activist Lifestyle Changes and Small Acts
What other lifestyle changes and small, individual acts of activism should you take to boost your impact? Research has identified a number of factors that make individual activism effective. Individual acts can be impactful when large numbers of people all take small actions, creating a large overall impact. They can also inspire others to create change, creating ripple effects on communities.
Let’s look at diet changes for animal rights as an example. Although no studies have been able to effectively track the direct impact of individuals changing their diet on the food production system, all current and former vegans and vegetarians (former vegans and vegetarians are included because they eat around half as much animal products as the average person who has never attempted a vegan or vegetarian diet) in the U.S. collectively save nearly 14 billion pounds of dairy and 6 billions pounds of meat from being consumed every year in the U.S. The most conservative measures estimate that if every current and former vegan and vegetarian in the U.S. suddenly began eating animal products at normal levels, the U.S. would need to slaughter an additional 695 million animals per year to meet the increased demand. One person turning vegan, vegetarian, or reducetarian does not necessarily save lives, but collectively they are having an impact.
Taking shorter showers, biking or walking to work, adopting a pet, spaying and neutering your pets, voting, composting your fruit and vegetable scraps, buying organic and locally-grown food—these are all actions that can add up the more we all participate. It’s important to find a balance—it would likely be impractical to implement every single small individual action you could think of, but not engaging in any actions prevents us from exercising our collective power. Find some actions you believe in that feel sustainable and realistic for you, that can both help the world and give you the energy you need to engage in more direct work.
The most effective lifestyle changes and small acts include:
- Set off ripple effects
- Leverage your power and influence
- Vote in every election and contact your elected officials
- Challenge oppression and promote social justice
- Set an example for your community
- Confront oppression whenever you see it
- Communicate about progressive issues in an effective way
Set off ripple effects
If we need large numbers of people for some individual acts to be impactful, why bother at all? What will our one individual choices matter in the grand scheme of things? Amazingly, the research has shown that simply by acting and participating in your community, you lead others to do the same.
It is rare for individuals to partake in activism completely alone for long periods of time. Emerging and continuing activists need people to support them on their journey, help pass down important political knowledge and skills, and work with them to fight for social change. The myth of the rugged individual who pulls himself up by the bootstraps to undertake action alone through sheer willpower has been debunked in many other fields, and it’s time to retire it among activist communities, as well. We need to support each other and help each other grow.
Individuals who interact with other activists, voters, community organizers, and volunteers are much more likely to participate in civic and political action themselves, especially if they have friends or family who are involved. Having a sense of community among activists also fosters action. Strong leaders who can model progressive behavior and help train and support budding activists are also important. One study found that individuals with political expertise lead others in their social network to participate more in politics and feel more confident in their political views.
Even simply having conversations about politics with friends or family leads to greater civic and political participation. Youth who grew up with regular political discussions in the home are much more likely to vote (38% always vote, as compared to 20% of youth who did not grow up around political discussions) and volunteer (35% are regular volunteers, as compared to 13%). One study tracked the influence of college dorm roommates’ political orientations and activities on students by surveying students on their political involvement when they first arrived at college, after their first year, and during their last year. The study found that students who were assigned a roommate who regularly discussed politics were more likely to be civically engaged later in their college careers.
Additionally, having supportive friends and family is a strong predictor of activist involvement. People who do not have a support system that encourages their activism usually don’t get involved or drop out quickly.
By acting in the service of progressive change, you serve as a role model for those around you, leading others to participate in the actions necessary for widespread change.
Leverage your power and influence
If you have more power and influence than the average person, you can greatly increase your impact by effectively leveraging your position. See if you hold any of the following useful qualifications, resources, or positions to learn how you can best leverage your impact.
If you are a respected local or national leader, or a widely-read or followed author, blogger, or other influencer, you are a role model for many individuals. Within 24 hours of Taylor Swift making one Instagram post that encouraged her followers to register to vote, 65,000 individuals registered to vote on Vote.org—almost 10,000 more than had registered in the entire month of August. You do not necessarily need to be a celebrity to have an impact—your public support and endorsement of progressive policies, candidates, and causes can help organizations succeed.
If you are a top staff member, decisionmaker, or leader in an organization, institution, or business, you are poised to greatly benefit marginalized groups by implementing anti-oppression and social justice practices in your organization. If you are working with a progressive organization, you can help prevent burnout among activists and volunteers by prioritizing supportive practices and maintaining efficacy. You can also steer your organization toward success by choosing the most effective tactics outlined in this guide.
If you are a professional expert (e.g., lawyer, scientist, doctor, or professor), you are a highly influential individual in your community. Lawmakers are much more likely to listen to you and take your advice, so contact your elected officials regularly to voice your support for progressive policies.
If you are an elected official, policymaker, or local gatekeeper, you are in an excellent position to help support and implement progressive policies, and to support the infrastructure that builds future progressive generations. Reach out to local progressive organizations and see how you can best support them. Sometimes the most impact comes not from obviously political or partisan decisions, but from the collective impact of small, local decisions. Zoning laws can allow hundreds or thousands of individuals to access affordable housing, small budget decisions can make or break nonprofits’ abilities to provide community resources, and health-related bills can dramatically impact the livelihoods of community members.
Vote in every election and contact your elected officials
Voting is one of the most impactful actions you can take as a progressive, and it’s also the easiest and quickest action on this list.
Voting matters. Remember that progressive social movements are more likely to secure wins when there are more Democrats and progressive allies in office. Every election, you vote not just for the most visible candidates, but also for the officials and propositions that can make your journey to social change smooth and easy, or who can block your progress at every step.
In recent years, traditionally marginalized groups, including people of color, people from an immigrant background, and youth, have begun mobilizing voters from their communities to represent their neighborhoods’ voices, select more progressive candidates who will fight for their rights, and enact policies that protect the health and safety of all.
Every time you vote, you are not just casting one ballot. Your voting behavior has ripple effects on others, meaning the power of your vote is amplified. If you live with others, your decision to vote will make your housemates more likely to vote, making a housemate who originally would be 25% likely to vote become 85% likely to vote. Posting that you voted on Facebook will lead to your friends being more likely to vote themselves. You may even start a “turnout cascade,” a measurable phenomenon where one person voting can lead to dozens of others voting, as well.
You can join this historic movement for community power by turning out to vote at every election. To find out if you are registered to vote and learn how to register in your area, visit HeadCount’s website at: https://www.headcount.org/
Contacting your elected officials is also extremely impactful and can help you advocate for progressive change in your district. We covered the best practices for contacting elected officials in the tactics section, but we recommend reviewing it, as individuals can be very impactful contacting their officials on their own. Many individuals find it helpful to use an app or website to help them in this process. To receive summaries of recent policy and to get the contact information for your representatives, visit Countable’s website at: https://www.countable.us/
Challenge oppression and promote social justice
Living your own life in accordance with progressive values is an excellent step, but it’s also essential to stand up and defend them on behalf of others. By committing to being a leader, focusing on growth and learning, and confronting oppression when you see it, you can help reduce oppression and discrimination in your community.
Set an example for your community
Individuals have enormous power to reduce oppression in their communities and create spaces where all people have the freedom to feel safe, welcomed, and valued. Fostering social justice leadership can create numerous ripple effects that will positively impact your community. This isn’t just an aspirational hope—research has proven that you can shift the culture on social justice, which can lead to less discrimination and fewer acts of bias.
Social norms—what we believe about how other people normally act—have an enormous influence on oppression, as people who think others are prejudiced are more likely to express prejudice themselves. Even though individuals like to think that they are not swayed by the crowd, impressions of social norms actually predict our likelihood of engaging in oppressive behavior much more than our own prejudice levels.
Unfortunately, both prejudiced and non-prejudiced individuals falsely believe that other people are more prejudiced and less committed to social justice than they really are. When college men were asked to guess how important consent was to other men, they guessed that other men would rate the importance of consent an average of 8.4 out of 12, but in reality, the average self-rated score for college men was 11.4 out of 12.
The reason our perceptions are off is that small groups of outspoken and highly prejudiced individuals can skew our understandings of communities as a whole.
This gives us, as activists, enormous potential to help show people that our communities do not tolerate hatred and instead value diversity and equality. Since people who believe that others engage in a certain action become more likely to engage in that action themselves, highlighting the positive norms in our communities can lead to more caring and compassionate behaviors.
One study proved the power of a small number of leaders by training an average of 26 students at each of 28 public middle schools in New Jersey to take a public stance against bullying. The students were given the freedom to take a grassroots approach and crafted their own strategies to stand up to bullying at each school. Overall, school conflict was reduced by 30% and the culture was changed dramatically, with students going from believing only a few other individuals in their schools disapprove of discrimination to believing that three-fourths of other students disapprove of discrimination.
Confront oppression whenever you see it
Although effective activists must challenge the root causes of oppression, we also need to confront oppression when it does occur in order to take care of all people in our communities and help shift the culture away from bias and toward equality.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that marginalized groups—such as women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals—experience oppression frequently. Discrimination and bias have large negative effects on marginalized individuals’ mental and even physical health. Even non-marginalized individuals who watch other people be discriminated against experience negative health outcomes. Oppression, discrimination, prejudice, and bias are harmful to our communities.
How should we respond when we see someone being oppressed?
Doing nothing, laughing it off, withdrawing from others, and suppressing anger after being a victim of or a witness to an act of bias or discrimination are all associated with negative emotional and physical outcomes. In contrast, stepping up to engage with the person who acted oppressively has positive, or at least neutral, outcomes for the confronter.
What about for those being confronted? Does saying something really help? Overwhelming, the research has shown that it does.
Being confronted by someone about an act of prejudice leads to lower prejudice levels and less discriminatory actions in the future. This effect doesn’t just apply to those being confronted. Individuals who simply watch someone confront someone else about oppression have lower prejudice and discrimination levels themselves after watching the interaction.
Some studies have found that it is more effective for privileged individuals to confront oppression—such as men confronting sexism or white people confronting racism. This is because privileged individuals are usually taken more seriously when confronting acts of bias. If you hold any privileged identities, try to be the one to speak up when oppression is occurring, instead of letting that burden fall on the person being victimized.
It’s important to note that “confrontation” does not mean screaming and yelling at people. In fact, hostile confrontations that involve name-calling, aggression, or an overly harsh approach can damage relationships, provoke negative emotions, increase stereotyping, and make people less interested in interacting with marginalized groups.
It may feel contradictory, but less is more when confronting oppression. Be kind, gentle, and understanding. We are all socialized into a harmful culture that is a scientifically-proven breeding ground for prejudice and oppression. Although this doesn’t excuse harmful behavior, lashing out at each other is misguided and downright ineffective. We must disrupt the false binary between ignoring oppression and aggressively shaming those who make mistakes. We can confront and address oppression in ways that effectively reduce prejudice and bring people together as activists to fight the root causes of oppression.
Communicate about progressive issues in an effective way
If you see an act of oppression, or even if you are just having a conversation with someone about diversity or social justice, how do you communicate in an effective way that persuades the other person to stop their harmful behaviors without provoking a backlash?
By and large, the most impactful communication strategy you can use is values-based, compassionate, and tailored to the listener.
Common liberal values include caring, protection from harm, fairness, and reciprocity. Conservatives more often value loyalty, respect for authority, and protection of purity. Most people tend to make arguments rooted in their own values—we construct arguments that are persuasive to us, not to the other person. When asked to persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage, 74% of liberals wrote arguments rooted in liberal values and 34% directly contradicted conservative values. These arguments are often ineffective and can quickly spiral into heated debates where both sides talk past each other.
When confronting prejudice or communicating about important progressive issues, frame your conversation in terms of the values of the person you’re trying to persuade. Conservatives who read arguments for universal health care that were framed in terms of purity (“uninsured people means more unclean, infected, and diseased Americans”) went from being against ObamaCare to being neutral on the issue, while conservatives who read arguments for same-sex marriage that were framed in terms of loyalty (“same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans”) shifted to actually be in favor of same-sex marriage.
Another study found that conservatives who read loyalty-based anti-Trump arguments that said, “Trump repeatedly behaved disloyally towards our country to serve his own interests,” and “during the Vietnam War, he dodged the draft to follow his father into the development business,” went from being 75% likely to vote for Trump to being 56% likely to vote for him.
These findings are crucial for progressives to internalize. Research has shown that most YouTube videos opposing Trump during the 2016 election season made no mention of conservative values, while many videos opposing Hillary Clinton appealed to liberal values. The right is using these persuasion tactics quite successfully; progressives would do well to get on board, too.
It is also highly effective to point out inconsistencies between people’s values and their behaviors—to invoke what is called cognitive dissonance. Awareness of cognitive dissonance leads to reduced prejudice and more behavior change.
One study found that making one comment that provoked cognitive dissonance and used relevant values was able to cause a huge change. In a classroom setting, right-wing authoritarians were asked to rank how much they valued freedom and equality and how much they supported native peoples; unsurprisingly, they ranked freedom high and equality low and were antagonistic toward native peoples. The instructor then said: “This raises the question as to whether those who don’t sympathize with native peoples are really saying they care a great deal about their own freedom, but are indifferent to other people’s freedom. For such people, equality ranked very low. Those who sympathize with the native movement are perhaps really saying they not only want freedom for themselves, but for other people too.”
This one comment led right-wing authoritarians to be just as likely as left-wing individuals to support scholarship funds for native students seven weeks later. Additionally, over seven months later, the right-wing authoritarians who heard the comment were much more likely than a control group to support native people’s demands for self-government, settlement of land claims, and voting rights. This is a huge effect for one very simple and brief comment. This study truly shows the power of learning how to communicate with others on their level—we can spend hours debating and never get anywhere, but once you’re able to tap into what others value and care about, it can be quite easy to help them realize how their actions are hurting others.
Many studies have also found that a compassionate approach to conversations is more effective at challenging oppression. Pushy persuasion strategies that are strongly worded and make demands are less effective and lead to anger and resistance.
Additionally, people are more likely to be receptive to different viewpoints, reduce their prejudice, and engage in less oppressive behavior when they are told their actions will make a difference in the world, they are encouraged to be empathetic towards others, they are reminded of the positive values and traits they possess that can be tapped into to promote social justice, and they are encouraged to take an objective and open-minded approach to the conversation (as opposed to a defensive approach which gets triggered by heated debates).
These compassionate approaches can help overcome confirmation bias—the largely unconscious bias towards taking in information that aligns with the views we already have and rejecting information that is challenging to us.
The reason values-based, cognitive-dissonance-provoking, and compassionate messaging can be so effective is that it taps into individuals’ deeply-rooted desires to be a good person and adhere to their values. Making even one comment can lead people to evaluate and change their own behavior to be more in line with their own values. Insults and harsh jabs based on your values set up a debate wherein the other person must defend themselves. They will construct arguments to prove you wrong, angrily defend themselves, and may walk away even more rooted in their beliefs than before as a way to protect themselves. It is much more pleasant (for both parties) and effective to help people better adhere to their own positive values.
You can better prepare yourself for effective social justice conversations by practicing a few phrases that you can use when addressing oppression or talking about politics. We’ll give you a few examples to get you started.
- You strike me as someone who stands up for the freedom of all Americans, so I’m surprised to see you treating someone this way.
- I’ve always appreciated how you make me feel welcomed and appreciated. I’m a little taken aback when you don’t treat others in the same way.
- I hear you saying that you want to ensure the freedom for your group, but I don’t hear you defending the freedom of other groups.
- Can you think of a time someone treated you unfairly? How did that make you feel? Is there a way we can address this situation without making others feel like that, too?
- Can I ask you what’s important to you in this conversation? What values are you trying to defend here? Can we think of a way to stand up for those values without hurting others or compromising their freedom?
If you are an educator, you may want some more in-depth resources for planning how to effectively communicate about social justice, inequality, and progressive issues with students. Nancy Davis’ (1992) article, “Teaching About Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage,” details common student reactions to social justice-related course content and offers many classroom activities that can help students better internalize the material.
 Asher, Green, Peake, Jewell, Gutbrod, Hale, and Bastian 2016
 Calculations by Effective Activist using data from Faunalytics
 Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Bond, Fariss, Jones, Kramer, Marlow, Settle, and Fowler 2012; Boulay, Storey, and Sood 2010; Granzin and Olsen 1991; McAdam 1986; Oegema and Klandermans 1994; Paluck 2011; Paluck, Shepherd, and Aronow 2016; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018; Wellman, Czopp, and Geers 2009;
 Case and Zeglen 2018; Downton and Wehr 1998
 Duhigg, Rostosky, Gray, and Wimsatt 2010; McClurg 2006
 McClurg 2006
 Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Boulay, Storey, and Sood 2010; Klofstad 2011; McClurg 2006; McLeod, Scheufele, and Moy 1999; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, and Zhao 2014; Zhang, Johnson, Seltzer, and Bichard 2009
 Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003
 Klofstad 2011
 Bunnage 2014; Cherry 2015; McAdam and Paulson 1993; Oegema and Klandermans 1994; Viterna 2006
 France 2018
 Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, and Su 2010; Baumgartner and Mahoney 2005; Cress and Snow 2000; Giugni 2007; King, Bentele, and Soule 2007; Minkoff 1997; Soule and Olzak 2004
 Bhatti, Dahlgaard, Hansen, and Hansen 2017; Nickerson 2008
 Nickerson 2008
 Bond, Fariss, Jones, Kramer, Marlow, Settle, and Fowler 2012
 Fowler 2005
 Blanchard, Crandall, Brigham, and Vaughn 1994; Crandall, Eshleman, and O’Brien 2002; Daníelsdóttir, O’Brien, and Ciao 2010; Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenbach, and Stark 2003; Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973; Herek and McLemore 2013; Hillard 2011; Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014; Paluck 2011; Poteat and Spanierman 2010; Watt and Larkin 2010; Wellman, Czopp, and Geers 2009
 Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, and Griskevicius 2008
 Crandall, Eshleman, and O’Brien 2002; Poteat and Spanierman 2010
 Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenbach, and Stark 2003; Watt and Larkin 2010
 Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenbach, and Stark 2003
 Watt and Larkin 2010
 Cialdini, Demaine, Sagarin, Barrett, Rhoads, and Winter 2006; Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius 2008; Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014; Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, and Griskevicius 2008; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018
 Paluck, Shepherd, and Aronow 2016
 Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald, and Bylsma 2003
 Brondolo, ver Halen, Pencille, Beatty, and Contrada 2009; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald, and Bylsma 2003; Szymanski and Lewis 2016
 Low, Radhakrishnan, Schneider, and Rounds 2007
 Brondolo, ver Halen, Pencille, Beatty, and Contrada 2009; Hyers 2007; Szymanski and Lewis 2016
 Hyers 2007; Szymanski and Lewis 2016
 Czopp, Monteith, and Mark 2006; Focella, Bean, and Stone 2015; Mallett and Wagner 2011; Son Hing, Li, and Zanna 2002; Stone, Whitehead, Schmader, and Focella 2011
 Blanchard, Crandall, Brigham, and Vaughn 1994; Hillard 2011
 Drury and Kaiser 2014; Forcella, Bean, and Stone 2015; Gervais and Hillard 2014; Gulker, Mark, and Monteith 2013; Moore 1997
 Becker and Barreto 2014; Czopp, Monteith, and Mark 2006; Stone, Whitehead, Schmader, and Focella 2011
 Feinberg and Willer 2015
 Feinberg and Willer 2015; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018; Völkel and Feinberg 2016
 Feinberg and Willer 2015, p. 6
 Feinberg and Willer 2015, p. 9
 Völkel and Feinberg 2016, p. 3
 Völkel and Feinberg 2016
 Altemeyer 1994; Borgman 2009; Duhigg, Rostosky, Gray, and Wimsatt 2010; Herek and McLemore 2013; Hing, Li, and Zanna 2002
 Altemeyer 1994; Dickerson, Thibodeau, Aronson, and Miller 1992; Kantola, Syme, and Campbell 1984; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018
 Altemeyer 1994
 Altemeyer 1994, p. 141
 Dillard and Shen 2005; Plous 2003; Quick and Considine 2008
 Stewart, Latu, Branscombe, Phillips, and Denny 2012
 Broockman and Kalla 2016; Shen 2010
 Cohen, Aronson, and Steel 2000; Sherman, Nelson, and Steele 2000; Stone, Whitehead, Schmader, and Focella 2011
 Hart, Brechan, Merrill, Albarracín, Eagly, and Lindberg 2009; Lundgren and Prislin 1998
 Cohen, Aronson, and Steel 2000; Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng 2009
Need to dig more into the literature? Visit our full references page to search for the article you’re interested in.