As a young teen, Greta Thunberg’s first foray into environmental activism was persuading her parents to reduce their carbon footprint in an attempt to reduce their family’s contribution to global climate change. By age 15, she took to protesting alone on a bench outside the Swedish parliament, gradually drawing attention for her persistence. Soon thereafter, Thunberg was inspiring environmental protests in schools around the world, with as many as 1.6 million students from some 120 countries participating in efforts to prevent catastrophic climate degradation.1 To the extent that Thunberg’s individual actions will influence political choices, it will be because these actions have helped create a movement, inspire interest groups and parties, and lead governments to change their policies. Despite these worldwide protests, it is not at all clear that environmental policies will change rapidly and dramatically. One reason for this is that powerful interests oppose taking action. Another reason—one that this chapter will consider in some detail—is that even when individuals agree that action must be taken, it can be difficult to come to an agreement on exactly what those actions should be. Opportunities to free ride, or to take advantage of the global commons, continue to be difficult to address despite the passionate efforts of so many to change them.
All political action is ultimately individual action, but even if you were Greta Thunberg, you would not be able to make political change entirely on your own. Only when groups of individuals come together to take collective action can they make political decisions that lead to change. Candidates run as individuals, but to win elections, they typically need the backing of an organized political party with—especially in the case of national elections—perhaps millions of supporters. Legislatures are composed of individual politicians, but they act through groups—for example, committees, caucuses, and the party organization. Political movements form when enough individuals come together in common purpose to seek political change. Even an emperor is likely to receive advice from some sort of cabinet, and for an emperor to accomplish anything, they will need the support of a military or a bureaucracy. Unless individuals come together with others, their ability to effect or resist change is miniscule. Thunberg’s efforts will come to naught unless those seeking to mitigate climate change are able to overcome collective dilemmas.2
This chapter focuses on group action. Humans, in all their marvelous diversity, act for all sorts of reasons. Some of these reasons are instrumental and strategic—people do this to get that—but others are more properly seen as expressive and symbolic. People act not to get, but to be or to display. The distinction between expressive and instrumental actions is not precise, and these behaviors overlap (as noted in Chapter 2: Political Behavior Is Human Behavior). Consider the mass protests against the government of Cuba that broke out in the summer of 2021.3 Those protesting may have done so to express anger (an emotion), show solidarity (symbolic behavior), and/or seek political change (instrumental action). Though it is not yet possible to hook up sensors to a person’s brain to learn what triggered each element of their behavior, it is possible to recognize the potential importance of different types of triggers.
You learned in Chapter 2 that individuals can be rational and also intuitive, strategic yet expressive, self-interested but still public spirited. These concepts carry over to the study of group behavior, focusing on the expressive, symbolic, or emotional aspects of individuals within groups as well as the rational, instrumental, and strategic behaviors of individuals in group decision-making.4