a man holding a sign

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, this author’s high school invited a speaker to address the student body. 

One year, the speaker was poorly received. He drew on his experience growing up in a poor, African-American neighborhood to describe economic and social inequality, linking it back to the injustices of the Civil Rights era and slavery. He pushed the students, most of whom came from towns that were monocultures of wealth, to recognize their privilege.

Students preferred the following year’s speaker. He too spoke about the continued existence of injustices. But he did so by describing Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which reveals how a majority of Americans (African-Americans included) have “an automatic preference for white over black.” He joked about racial profiling by asking why police don’t stop every White businessman in a SUV to check for evidence of financial fraud (this was shortly after the Enron scandal). He said that everyone must take responsibility for ending racial injustices. But he did so by describing a quarrel between him and his roommates over cleaning a smelly pot full of old jambalaya in the kitchen. (The takeaway was that you have to take action to fix a situation that affects everyone, even if you didn’t cause it yourself.) 

This is the paradox activists face: the harder they push for social change, the more they alienate the people whose support they hope to win.

Nadia Bashir, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Toronto, makes this point as lead author of a paper entitled “The Ironic Impact of Activists: Negative Stereotypes Reduce Social Change Influence.”

Victories like the passage of environmental or gay marriage legislation come after years of persistent activism in the face of public resistance or ambivalence. Research into resistance to social change has focused on people’s views on the issue (perhaps they see it as irrelevant to them, fail to see an injustice, or simply disagree) and personality traits such as political conservatism and authoritarianism that are less amenable to social change. But Bashir and her co-authors suspected a different explanation: we find activists militant and eccentric and want nothing to do with them – even if we agree with their cause.

Although past studies have suggested that stereotypes of activists are overwhelmingly negative, Bashir and co. first recruited Americans from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to verify this. The team chose to investigate feminism and environmentalism activists. In their survey responses, the participants rated a “typical feminist” and “typical environmentalist” as much more militant and eccentric – but less personable – than a “typical American.” 

America is not in a love affair with activists. To ensure that leading questions were not responsible for these viewpoints, the psychologists asked another group of participants to supply their own descriptions of “typical” feminists and environmentalists. The top responses for feminists were Man hating, lesbian, unhygienic, and angry. Participants described environmentalists as tree-huggers, vegetarians, and hippies. Descriptions of environmental and feminist activists as “crazy” and “annoying” outnumbered descriptions like “intelligent” or “educated.” 

And people don’t seem inclined to take directions from the people they characterize as unhygienic, man hating lesbians and crazy tree-huggers.

Although we suspect that most people would accept the logic, the authors of the paper tested how these negative stereotypes reduce individuals’ desire to affiliate with activists and individuals’ amenability to their arguments. In one study, undergraduate students read profiles of a “typical” feminist (who conformed with people’s stereotypes of feminists as more militant), an “atypical” feminist (who did not), and a feminist whose activism was not described. 

Typical: “I also organize rallies outside corporate and political institutions in the community to pressure CEOs and politicians who don’t prioritize women’s rights issues into resigning.”

Atypical: “I’m involved in organizing social events at clubs and lounges to raise money for women’s rights organizations.”

Undefined: “When my weekends aren’t packed with schoolwork and volunteer activities, I usually spend the day watching TV or hanging out at coffee shops.”

The undergraduates who read the typical feminist profile rated him or her as less personable and more militant. They were also less willing to befriend or affiliate with him or her compared to the atypical and undefined feminist.

In a second study, 3 groups of undergraduate participants again read one of the three profiles of a typical, atypical, or undefined feminist. They then all read the same article about women’s rights, although they were told it was written by the feminist whose profile they had just read. 

Those who believed the article was written by the typical, stereotypical feminist were much less susceptible to its message, expressing less interest (as measured by survey responses) in changing their attitudes or taking action. The degree to which they ascribed negative stereotypes to the supposed author mediated their resistance or openness the message.

The authors found the same results when they ran the same two experiments for environmentalists rather than feminists – this time with Americans recruited from Mechanical Turk. They found the same desire not to affiliate with a typical activist when they ran a final study in which they did not offer a profile of each activist, but simply described them as “typical” or “atypical” feminists and environmentalists.   

One alternative explanation of people’s hesitancy to affiliate with or listen to these typical activists could be that individuals don’t like activists because they are different from themselves or seem to reproach them morally. In the example of the author’s high school, the problem may not have been the first speaker’s more militant tone. Instead, the students may have rejected his message because he came from a very different background and seemed to blame the students for the privileges of being White in America.

But Bashir and her co-authors reject that explanation. When they asked participants in the studies to rank the activists according to how similar they seemed to themselves – and whether they expected the activists to view them as immoral – they found that these factors did not account for individuals’ partialness to (or dislike of) the activists. 

Reading this account of Americans’ negative stereotyping of activists, we wondered whether the story would be different in, say, the sixties when activism was cool. In an email, Bashir conceded that her results likely would have been different in the 1960s – at least as long as she recruited participants from UC Berkeley and not the Young Republicans Club:

I do think that reactions to activists can differ across different time periods. Participants in our studies viewed environmentalists in part as eccentric, drug-using, peace-loving hippies… At a time when being a peace-loving hippie was common and trendy, people probably had more favorable perceptions of at least some types of activists. In the present day, however, individuals’ perceptions of activists seem to be blatantly negative. Many participants even viewed environmentalists as “terrorists” and feminists as “ball breakers,” so I don’t think that these perceptions will become favorable anytime soon. 

This leads to a trap for activists. The more insistent and dedicated they are in pursuit of their goals, the more they will alienate the public they seek to win over. 

This research suggests that – generally speaking – when it comes to social change, Americans today are a bunch of hipsters. Everyone recognizes the importance of social issues like women’s rights. But the last thing we want to do is hang out with someone who actually tries to do something about them.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.