Thursday, 2 January 2014

Activists have an image problem, say social psychologists

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

--Further reading--
Political activism is good for you
How weak arguments can make a more effective call to arms than strong arguments

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Andrew Taylor said...

Would be interesting to see how this research controls for the way the public perceptions are influenced by the images portrayed by the media of 'activists'. As these are almost impossible for people involved in social change to control.

Alex Randall said...

The researchers fail to distinguish between the "image" activists choose to create, and the kind of change they are demanding. Whether you organise rallies or raise money for good causes is not an image decision - it's a decision about the kind of change you are calling for. Typically rallies and protests are about demanding a change in the fundamental structure of society, the economy and who holds power. Fundraising events are typically about creating change the can exist comfortably within current economic and political systems. So what the researchers have actually found is that their participants (and perhaps the public) dislike wide reaching social change that challenges power and the economic order. And prefer shallower change within existing structures. But we kind of already knew that.

The point this article seems to make is that activists have an image problem and are held back by a negative stereotype. But the researchers (and authors of this article) are mistaken in assuming that the image of activists is entirely created and controlled by the activists themselves. When campaigners threaten powerful companies and governments, of course those companies and governments are going to do their best to paint the activists as marginal, crazy militants. Creating and enforcing this stereotype fairly easy job when you have most of the corporate media already on your team.

gwern said...


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Randall's analysis. It is obvious that society's problem is not anti- establishment activists, but a cowed and ignorant public. The very word "activist" has been sufficiently tarnished in the mainstream media such that anyone accused of activism is seen as other, not part of acceptable society. It's so unfortunate that progressive people who advocate for justice and sustainability are marginalized and demeaned. If only we could live somewhere else; thusly, we could impartially watch the corporate state rape, kill, and destroy the deserving masses; yet, we would not have to be raped, killed, or destroyed by our "association" with them.
The tragic chemical spill in West Virginia simply illustrates how stupid Americans are. They consistently vote for right-wing zealots, dare I say activists, who sell them out and poison their communities. These poor trash basically identify with the rich psychopaths whom destroy their lives, environments, and livelihoods. Yet, they continue to identify with their oppressor. If anything, this study simply illustrates what has been known for years: Slaves, often times, come to love their chains. They love their chains and hate any idea of a chain breaker. I believe this condition is known, in psychiatry, as Stockholm Syndrome. Hostages, in this instance, Common people, cannot be relied upon to emancipate themselves, nor can they be relied upon to assist activist in our endeavors to emancipate ourselves from their ignorance and their adoration of the rich. Anyone literate enough to read the research article is probably part of the loathed "activist" community. Reading, in America, makes you an outsider/eccentric. Take my word for it, North America sucks; the people who live here are a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a shallow naive look at the difficulty of change within our corporate controlled (messaging/framing) world. Sounds as if the researchers are resume building for a billionaire funded, ideological think-tank.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I find the whole issue of a study by psychologists - on what activists and others, are perceived as - to be offensive in the first place. More of the same propaganda.

I don't think anyone working towards a better society and world, in general, needs to, or should, waste any energy considering "what others think" of them. That's the problem with society, in general - too many "generalizations" - not enough critical thinking.

And besides, it's all in the presentation, baby. Any activist worth their salt knows that going in.

Anonymous said...

They have to garner and justify their "grant-money", somehow.

***Chamber of Commerce is proud to sponsor .... ***

Unknown said...

I find myself in agreement with pretty much everything posted so far. Just thought I'd swell the chorus by one. And an irony just occurred to me. It was only a couple of years ago that Time magazine, which IS the mainstream in its niche genre especially when found on line at the supermarket, named The Protester Person of the Year. If I remember correctly the reason was primarily Occupy and the Arab Spring. And didn't we just spend weeks celebrating Nelson Mandela? I know he was often repackaged and defanged but it was awfully hard to bury his global rep as a - you guessed it - militant. I found it refreshing when Darth Cheney defended his decision in Congress that helped keep Mandela in prison by asserting that after all the man was a terrorist.
So what the hell are they talking about? What about the history of all the social movements since the 19th goddamn century? Could you imagine if they took this sinister advice? To take one at random, what about the students at the white only lunch counters in places like Mississippi? How do you think they were perceived by the locals? As a hell of a lot worse things than "eccentric" I can tell you that. It occurs to me that the people who conduct studies like this are certainly educated, but only in the narrowest sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

During Occupy I knew people of the conservative ilk who still held on to the 60's bred notion that they were still the great unwashed "hippie" stereotype demonstrator.. When I told them I went to one of the largest of the Occupy rallies/marches in the county in Santa Rosa Ca. and reported the people there represented a wide swath of of our population with a myriad of groups represented and many middle class citizens in attendance, these political conservatives suffered from an accute sense of cognitive disonance and were incredulous, non- believing tongue tied units.

Eliot St. John said...

Somewhere there is probably a study that looks at the image of conservative activists, and the comments section is filled with angry conservatives going on about the liberal media and the hidden agenda of the researchers.

Anonymous said...

excellent point

Anonymous said...

That's funny. Are there really any "conservative activists"?

I'll try to keep that in mind.

dave womble said...

The Tea Party, the taxpayers alliance, and over here in blighty, those scamps the EDL.

Anonymous said...

if, without changing your message or views about what a better society can be like, you (the royal "you) can change what people think about you in order to get support for your ideas, i don't see what's wrong with doing that.

if people continue to have a negative view of you--and therefore oppose your ideas--regardless of the fact that your views will bring about an end to poverty and war, then what's the point of pursuing change?

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