The Psychology of Dropping Out
from No Compromise Issue 22

By Kelah Bott

At any given moment, many of us in the animal rights movement may be frustrated with the relatively small number of people active in the struggle. We are disappointed with the meager turnouts at our demonstrations and outreach events. We wonder why no one else seems to care. Most distressing of all, people who once fought along side of us disappear, never to attend another protest or leafleting.

So why is it that once-dedicated activists leave the movement and seemingly abandon the cause they once fought so hard for? To answer that question, we first need to examine why people become involved in the first place. Human behavior is complex, and each person has his or her own unique reason for becoming an activist, but for the purposes of this article, I will be fairly simplistic. People become activists for two main reasons.

First, people have a desire to belong. We want to be a part of something, whether it’s a particular social scene or a social justice movement. Human beings are social animals, so it is only natural to seek out a community with which we share a common cause.

Second, our motivations are altruistic. Webster’s dictionary defines altruism as: “1. the principle or practice of unselfish concern for the welfare of others 2. behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind.” I think both of these definitions apply to animal rights activists. We merely extend our circle of whom we consider to be our “own kind.”

In light of these motivations, why do people leave? I believe a person’s reason for dropping-out is directly correlated to his or her reason for involvement in the first place.

For those who become activists for primarily altruistic reasons, burnout can play a major factor in their departure. Burnout is kind of a general term that refers to a state of exhaustion brought on by stress or overwork, and it can come in various forms. Some people simply agree to do more than they can handle. They become overwhelmed with obligations and end up becoming victims to their own zealousness. Their flame burns oh-so-brightly until all their fuel runs out.

“Compassion Fatigue” is a fancy term that psychologists use to describe one particular type of burnout: the fatigue and apathy that come from working in a field of high emotional stress. It is usually applied to animal shelter workers, paramedics, or other people whose work exposes them to populations in distress. I think this can accurately be applied to animal rights activists. By our very nature, many of us are acutely sensitive to the suffering of others. That is what drew us to do this work. We do what we can to alleviate this suffering, but ultimately our efforts can feel futile. In a world where the majority seems to care very little about the things that matter to us most, and where we see oppression and pain in every meal we share with non-vegan friends or family, this feeling of futility can be overwhelming. Sometimes that is enough to thwart our intentions to right these wrongs.

Another contributing factor to burnout can be doing work that we feel isn’t making any difference. For instance, working on a campaign that seems un-winnable or too broad in scope, or conversely, working on a campaign that is too narrow (and therefore still may be ineffective) can leave an activist feeling useless and apathetic.

For activists whose primary drive for getting involved was the need to belong, their reasons for leaving may be vastly different from those of the altruist. The reasons for leaving may be that same need for a community that got them to join in the first place. For those of us who started out without many friends who shared our views on the world, becoming an activist meant finally feeling a sense of kinship with a larger social circle. It was an immense relief to know that we were not alone in the world, and this may have helped us adjust to our changing ideas of the world. Unfortunately, this need for community can also work against us.

While becoming part of the animal rights movement may lead to friendships with people whose values closely mirror our own, it also may lead to more distant relationships with people we once considered close friends. Our perception of the world is now viewed through the lens of an activist, which can mean isolation from mainstream society. For many, this may be a blessing. For others it may be frightening. This isolation may be unwelcome for many, and some may choose to leave their lives of activism to re-enter the mainstream.

Many activists, however, are searching for a community that does not embrace mainstream culture. The animal rights movement may be just what they were looking for. Or maybe any alternative to the mainstream will do, so once they’ve tried animal rights on, they move on to the next social justice movement that will have them.

Others may not have been accepted the way they wanted to be. While we may not want to admit it, we can be clique-ish and can have a hard time accepting newcomers. We may be suspicious of people eager to join the fight, or simply unsure of what tasks we can hand off to someone else. For some potential activists this can be off-putting, and just enough to keep them away.

I am not suggesting here that folks become activists merely to find a good party. As I stated earlier, human behavior is complex. Our motivations are rarely that simple. I am just suggesting that our altruistic intentions or our desire for a community may play a bigger or lesser part in one’s actions depending on the person.

Now that we know why people join the movement and why they leave, how do we make them stay? I don’t think it is important to examine each individual’s motives in order to keep each person interested and active. Having a general idea of the reasons behind dropping out can give us a guide to retaining activists. For new activists, it’s important that we break out of our comfort zone and welcome them. Give them tasks that make them feel they are involved. Make them aware that their contributions are valued.

It is also important to nurture the activists that have been around awhile. Those people who we think would never give up the fight may be just the ones who are most susceptible to burnout. Don’t ask people to do things that you know will overload them. Remind your friends, too, if you know they are working too hard, that they need to pace themselves and not take on too many commitments.

For new and old activists alike, design your campaigns with a clear goal in mind. One that is winnable and yet still likely to make an impact will keep more people involved for the long haul.

It’s funny; the very thing we are fighting against is the one subject that is often unlikely to come up in conversation. We already know where our fellow activists stand on the subject of animal oppression and exploitation, so it isn’t something we need to discuss with them. However, this may only serve to deepen our feelings of anger and frustration at the world. It can be important to talk about this so we don’t fall victim to our own rage and become apathetic and therefore inactive.

Even with all of our efforts to keep activists involved in the movement, people will continue to burn out, or simply drop out. It is important, therefore, to keep this in mind and not let ourselves become too discouraged by this inevitability. Above all, appreciate the activists we do have, who continue to fight each day for our mutual goal: animal liberation.