|An activist shouts at the Power Shift ’09 rally on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 2009 | Getty Images.|
When you picture a feminist or an environmental campaigner, what kind of a person do you think of? If you’re like the US and Canadian participants in this new paper, then you’ll have in mind an eccentric, militant, unhygienic person. Nadia Bashir and her colleagues say this commonly held stereotype of an activist is partly responsible for the sluggishness of social change. Large sections of the public agree with activists’ messages, but are put off by not wanting to affiliate themselves with the kind of person they think makes an activist.
Bashir’s team conducted five proper studies in all, and three pilot investigations. The pilot work involved Canadian students, and US participants recruited online, and was used to establish the characteristics – militant, eccentric etc – that people tend to associate with a typical feminist or environmentalist.
For one of the main studies, undergrads read about either a “typical” feminist, who took part in rallies, or an atypical feminist, who used less abrasive techniques, such as holding social events to raise money for feminist causes. Next, all the students read an article, ostensibly written by the aforementioned feminist, about the unfair obstacles that women continue to face. Finally, the students declared their intentions to adopt pro-feminist behaviours, such as getting involved in pro-women’s rights initiatives.
The students who read about a typical feminist tended to assume she had more negative stereotypical traits, such as being militant and eccentric. What’s more, after reading her article, these same students tended to report fewer intentions to engage in pro-feminist behaviours themselves, as compared with students who’d encountered the atypical feminist and her article. These two things were linked – mediation analysis suggested students who encountered the typical feminist and her article had lower pro-feminist intentions because they saw the feminist as having stereotypical activist traits.
The gist of these findings was replicated in another study with a sample of 140 US participants recruited online, and with the focus on an environmentalist rather than a feminist. This study also showed that participants were less inspired by the arguments of a more typical militant environmentalist, not just because of seeing him as having more negative stereotypical traits, but also because of not wanting to affiliate with him.
Past research on people’s advocacy for social change has tended to focus on their beliefs about the issue at hand, or on the personality characteristics of people who tend to favour social change or oppose it. This study is novel in that it focuses instead on people’s perceptions of those who campaign for social change. The findings have obvious real-life implications for activists. “…. seemingly zealous dedication to a social cause may backfire and elicit unfavourable reactions from others,” the researchers said. “… [T]he very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.”
Nadia Y. Bashir, Penelope Lockwood, Alison L. Chasteen, Daniel Nadolny and Indra Noyes (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1983