Psychology’s Perspective on Reactions to Green Becoming the New Gold

The psychology behind the cap and gown protests


The original post on Instagram that ignited the protests.

Janet Song, Staff Writer

In only a week, two protests from Ward Melville alone have caught the attention of the media, including Eyewitness News and Newsday.

The first protest occurred on Wednesday and was planned a day prior; students arranged to come together fifth period during school to walk out and protest in front of the high school building. About a hundred students attended, marching outside and chanting “green and gold!” As the protest pursued, hallways became hectic; security guards rushed to the front to try and dissolve the chaos, and students stopped near the already crowded senior wall to take pictures and videos of the incident to post on their Snapchats.

Ideally, Ward Melville is an example of how easily humans fall to conformity and how beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes play an important role in grouping. How these students were able to assemble in a quick and unified manner remains the most astonishing attribute of the protests. Although the focus of the protest centered on the seniors and their anger over the new cap and gowns for their graduation, some juniors and sophomores joined in the cause too. There were notable group dynamics, including that the protest consisted primarily of male students. What was also among students was that the protest was not just about the color of the gown, but also on wider issues, such as the current presidency and the rights of transgender individuals. A student in the seventh period AP Psychology class commented that she saw a “Straight Lives Matter” sign held up by a sophomore student.

Mr. Wilson, a hall monitor that period, said, “[…]it was chaotic and interesting to watch.  My primary concern was over the welfare and safety of the kids.  I was watching intently.  Since no one was in danger or being harmed, I got a first-hand account as things were organized before they moved outside.  As I spoke in my classes that day and the next, the social studies teacher in me was very interested in seeing how this organized and if it was going to materialize.” Although Mr. Wilson has been teaching at Ward Melville for fifteen years, he has never seen anything similar to the demonstration that took place.

Why was the protest able to accumulate and gain that much support? Mr. Wilson notes how impressed he was rather impressed with how the protest related to his lesson on conformity in his psychology classes. “I was very interested in seeing what would take place next,” he explained. “In teaching, we call this a teachable moment.  The psychology teacher in me was just beaming with thoughts and ideas.  We saw excellent examples of group dynamics.  I saw levels of conformity kick in for students who didn’t much care about the demonstration but wanted to be there for their friends.”

For example, he noted the cognitive dissonance “was on full display.” In psychology, cognitive dissonance regards a state in which a feeling of discomfort is felt in a situation, leading to a change in an individual’s attitude, behavior, or beliefs in attempts to relieve this discomfort. This was seen, Mr. Wilson continued, when “people either dropped out of the protest or added to it once the messages of the protesters were being chanted or displayed.”

Wilson also noticed social facilitation. In this circumstance, people have tendencies to act different when they are in groups compared to when they are alone. Usually, individuals are found to perform even better at tasks when they are around people in contrast to when they are by themselves. In this case, students had even more energy at the protest as it progressed compared to when it began. “We definitely see a lot of social facilitation from the leaders and organizers of this demonstration. Chants started, people moved in different directions and the energy was being injected into the group.”

Group polarization was also obvious in the crowds. This phenomenon regards the tendency of individuals to become more extreme with their decisions in a group despite the original cause or intent. What began as simple discontent for the color of graduation gowns branched out into the current issues of today as more students joined the cause. “Group polarization was on display,” Mr. Wilson confirmed. “The noises made by the crowds, the chants, and really anything you would expect from a teenager led demonstration.”

The social studies and psychology teacher was notably excited to bring in the protest in discussions with his psychology classes. He said, “This is a great learning experience, regardless of where one stands on the issue at hand.  In my case, these were many of the topics I was teaching about in class, so timing couldn’t have been better.”

In regards to the overall result of the protest, there remains anger in the principal’s decision to change the gowns from green and gold to just green, despite a letter posted on the school website and an announcement during third period to address the issue. Certain students have considered boycotting the graduation, others are planning to sneak in their old gowns under their new ones, and the majority seems to have lost care about the issue. However, Dr. Baum has warned students that such rebellious actions could have major consequences for the entire senior class, including possible cancellation of the senior field trip to Six Flags.

Ward Melville has made history, locally and statewide. In only a week, their protests are responses to a variety of topics, from keeping local tradition to current heated issues in the nation today. However, it is clear that the conformity in these protests and the reasons for the energy are simply fascinating.