Colin Kaepernick is accidentally a brilliant psychologist

Over the last few years, there has been what feels like a never-ending spiral of police brutality, followed by protests against police brutality. Despite the cries from protestors, change is either incredibly slow, or has yet to begin altogether. Over the last few months, however, a new twist has been added to the saga – professional athletes, some of our most public figures and role models, have begun to demonstrate in public forums. Colin Kaepernick, the $114 million backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has become the visual symbol of protest that has reverberated through the American athletic landscape.

This new movement is no mistake, nor error of any kind. The events that have unfolded since Kap’s first National Anthem kneel down on August 14th, 2016  have been textbook group psychology – the influence of the minority can spread like wildfire. Some initial data seem to bare this out: the graph below shows the weekly frequency of professional, collegiate, high school, and middle school athletes that have demonstrated against racial inequality since Kap’s first kneel down. 

*frequencies were calculated based on news reports, numbers were estimated if there were no reported numbers or photographs.1

So how might one man’s action in a preseason NFL game spark this kind of change? The science of minority influence gives us some clues.

Step 1. Black Lives Matter is the minority, for now
A minority group is a subgroup that is both numerically smaller and possesses less power than an opposed majority2. Arguably, those who have protested against police brutality have seen little measurable change thus far, but have instead amplified the saliency of recent gruesome events. Though it’s a good bet that most Americans oppose police brutality, many also oppose Black Lives Matter (BLM). Regardless of numbers, it’s also abundantly clear that BLM doesn’t yet possess enough power to create the systemic change it seeks.
Step 2. The minority has the upper hand
Popularized by Moscovici (1969) conversion theory has been used to describe the behaviors of minority and majority groups over the last 50 years. At the broadest level, influence from a majority causes people to focus on the relationship between themselves and the members of the majority: an are you with us or against us mentality. Influence originating from a minority group, on the other hand, focuses on the message itself. Interestingly, research has shown that this focus on the message (vs. comparison) often has a greater influence3. In the end, the message will win.
So perhaps conversion theory can explain why opposition to Kap’s kneel-downs may not stand a chance – many of those who are against him focus on the method, not on the message. Indeed, people have stated that they’re in support of the movement against racial injustice, but that they object to Kap kneeling during the National Anthem. Simply, people agree with his message, but not the method; this should double down on the likelihood of minority influence. What’s more is that when people believethe minority’s message, it is more likely to persuade them4, and most Americans believe racism is a serious problem.
Step 3. Fortune favors the bold and consistent
Minority influence stands a better chance with a brave and consistent leader. Perceived courage stemming from the minority has been shown to help create systematic change. Minority leaders who assertively and repeatedly state their opinions publicly, with full knowledge that they’re in the minority group that they’ll have to publicly defend themselves, often stand the greatest chance of creating change5.
In Kap’s case, he’s certainly been consistent, using the same message and method since August 14th; he’s also been assertive, making clearer and clearer statements about his beliefs. And, as you might have noticed, other players across the professional sports landscape have are taking up the cause (just wait until the NBA starts again).
Step 4. The minority becomes the majority
According to conversion theory, the minority movement eventually reaches “critical mass,” where it becomes the majority. The process has then come full circle, where people conform to the new majority opinion. This terminal part of minority influence can take time, but can also result in clear, systemic change. 

So far, public protests have led to more athletes standing up for change, but a real shift has yet to happen. However, the fact that this protest is coming now, when most people agree with Kap’s message, could set it apart from past stands by professional athletes like Jack Johnson, Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The theory is clear, and the game plan for change is the same as the one on the field: kneeling down is the victory formation. 

1 (1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 8.

2 Crano & Alvaro, 1996

3 Martin, Hewstone, & Martine, 2008; Martin & Hewstone, 2003; Moscovici, 1980; Moscovici, 1985

4 Moscovici, 1969

5 Kerr, 2002

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