The Psychology Behind Reopen Protests

Ross Dillon
4 min readMay 5, 2020

What some people may of once thought of as good is now being forced on to them. In general humans don’t like this concept.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Psychological Motivation of the Protests

Motivation is the force that moves people to behave, think, and feel the way they do. So what is the motivation for people to protest a virus that the medical world mostly agree would best be countered by social distancing, and staying home?

Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it’s personally rewarding to you. Such as fulfilling needs, curiosity, challenge, and fun.

Extrinsic motivation involves doing something because you want to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Reward/punishment.

Some protestors may of never had intrinsic motivation to stay home. They may of found staying home is not fulfilling their need for safety, and health. Other may of originally observed staying home as fulfilling the need for health and safety, maybe even fun and enjoyable to get a little time off from work.

It’s been over a month of stay at home orders and social distancing, but just now protests are starting. Why now?

The intrinsic motivation, the need for health and safety has turned in to an extrinsic motivation. It has become: If you go outside and don’t observe laws you will be punished. People now see the laws as the government telling them what to do, instead of them doing it voluntarily, because they think they need to in order to stay safe.

This is why children are more likely to play with toys when they can do so at their own free will. But will be less motivated, and also see playing with a toy as a chore if they get rewarded for doing so. Something they originally did out of freewill turned into a burden. What they were doing for themselves, has now turned into something completely different.

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Self-Determination Theory in Protestors

This theory states that humans have three basic needs. Competence, autonomy, and relatedness. This may be one of the best theories for explaining the psychology behind the protests.

Competence- People need to gain control of their own lives & their environment. Essential to wellness. People are now feeling like they are not in control of what is going on. This scares people, they want to go back to normal times and do what they were doing before.

Autonomy- People need to feel in control of their own life, behaviors, and goals. This is about choice. Once again people feel like they don’t have choice when the government tells them we’re closing down, and that you can’t do certain things due to the safety of public health. People want choice, this is why we hear “civil liberties,” a lot. People are claiming that their right to freedom of actions are being attacked. The government is “interfering,” with what they want to do, restricting choice or “freedom.”

Relatedness- People need to experience a sense of belonging and connection with other people. If other people did not agree, would one single protestor be protesting alone? Protestors feel like they are part of something and belong at state capitals, etc. Because they have a sense of belonging to be there with other people who think the same way about reopening the economy as they do. People might also feel disconnected by being prohibited from social gathering.

Protestors reinforce other protestors behavior.

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Drive-Reduction Theory? In some cases.

This theory states psychological needs create a drive that motivates a person to fulfill a need. For example you need water. That creates thirst, so you drink.

So if you have a learned motive, such as money this could become a need for a person. How much money for you to dropout of school? To quit your job? To kill? It isn’t unusual for a person to give a dollar amount to these questions. Money can become a drive for action, even for things you might not think you would do, such as kill someone.

Is money driving some people to protest? Are these people in tough economic times? Maybe they lost their job or can’t help their families as much as they’d like. Possibly there is some other learned psychological need that is not being fulfilled. This theory could be applied, though it is probably not as common. Learned motivations such as need for money is many times countered by the presence of stimulus checks, state unemployment, and essential work existence.

This ties in to incentive theory, that our needs push our behavior.

Although no single motivational theory can explain all human motivations, I believe this to be a good glimpse in to explaining reopen protests, and the psychological impact stay at home and economic closures have.

Once again I have not specifically studied these protests, this is the use of psychological motivation theories to possibly explain why people are motivated to protest.

Stay safe.


King, L. A. (2017). The science of psychology: An appreciative view.