"Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world."

~ Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017) 

I have often asked myself how LGBTQ+ people all around the world find the courage to love and be themselves in a world that still today is not fully accepting. In too many places you can be killed for holding the hand of the person you love; you can be ostracized or imprisoned for being your full, beautiful, authentic self. How was the LGBTQ+ movement nurtured? 

Social science points to the power of aspiration and emotion to fuel social movements. Our aspirations are our ideas about the kinds of people we want to be and the lives we want to live. They are powerful drivers of our decisions and behaviors. In our heart of hearts, we strive to become our best selves. Some social scientists have called this our “aspirational identity.” We join movements that help us live out those aspirations.

Yet, a movement is beyond the single individual; its strength comes in numbers. Because of this, understanding the emotional connections and dynamics that unite people into movements is fundamental for social mobilization. Emotions work with cognition—thinking—to help us with attention, retention, and motivation. To be moved to action, we must not only understand the cause but feel strongly about it. Emotions are the seeds of movements. 

The science of emotions 

The classical view of emotions maintains that brains have many emotion circuits, each like “fingerprints.” This view also holds that emotions are artifacts of evolution, having long been advantageous for survival, and now a fixed component of biological nature, often at odds with rationality. The anthropologist Margaret Mead studied facial expressions and their meanings in different cultures to develop her theory that emotions are a social construction—each society has unique norms that guide how emotion should be expressed and understood. Further, Lisa Barrett, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, argues that emotions are not simply triggered by external experiences, but created. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. Emotions are rational. 

Emotions that lead to action

Wendy Pearlman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, argues that action can be amplified by encouraging certain emotions. She defines emotions that fuel political mobilization as “emboldening,” citing feelings such as anger, joy, and pride. These emotions spur action because they motivate prioritization of dignity even when it threatens security.

In contrast,  “dispiriting” emotions—such as fear, sadness, or shame—can de-motivate people. These emotions can get in the way of social action because they encourage individuals to prioritize security and resign to political circumstances.

Joining a movement, or otherwise fighting to live an authentic life, is a rational action—a conscious choice—which is driven by emboldening emotions. Emboldening emotions activate early mobilizers, and successful movements maintain this emotional energy to rally more and more people to take action in pursuit of their goals.

Here is the bottom line: When thinking of your communication objectives, it is imperative to be intentional and strategic about emotions. What emotions does your movement tap into? Are these emboldening or dispiriting emotions?

Aida develops research-driven strategies and content founded on her multicultural research experience and passion for change. She works with clients such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Aspen Institute and Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. She was a graduate research assistant at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, where she analyzed the effect of narratives and frames on political decision-making in the U.S. Aida obtained a bachelor’s degree in economics for the Universidad de Oviedo in Spain, and a master’s degree in government and international affairs from Virginia Tech. She is fluent in English, Spanish, and French.