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Negative stereotypes limit influence of activists, U of T research says

University of Toronto research shows that even when people support the goals of environmentalism or feminism, they don’t want to be associated with the activists promoting the cause.

Why? Labels stick — and words such as “militant,” “unhygienic” and “eccentric” are sticking to activists, the study finds. And those who view activists negatively are less likely to change their behaviour—even if they want to support the causes.

“If individuals believe that social change is crucial and socially valued, they should generally be supportive of and responsive to the activists who advocate it,” says lead author and psychology PhD candidate Nadia Bashir. “Yet although activists enthusiastically strive to address social justice concerns and are at times successful in promoting social change, they often encounter substantial resistance from the public.

“Ironically, it may be this enthusiasm with which activists promote social change that undermines their impact: rather than admiring their determination to address issues, individuals may avoid affiliating with activists and disregard their pro-change initiatives.”

For their studies, Bashir and her team examined the participants’ stereotypes and found precisely that people view environmentalists and feminists as eccentric and militant.

In one study, 17 male and 45 female undergraduate students were randomly assigned to read a profile about a student who was a “typical” feminist (described as conforming to the stereotypes), an “atypical” feminist (described as not conforming to the stereotypes) or someone whose commitment to feminism was not described. All participants then rated the extent to which the stereotypical traits belonged to character they read about, as well as if they were interested in being associated with the character.

In another study, 46 male and 43 female undergraduate students read a similar profile, but one in which the character was a journalist. After reading the profile, the participants read an article about the need for individuals to actively support women’s rights that they were told was written by the character. The participants then rated 22 items concerning their intentions for pro-gender equality behaviours along a seven-point scale. (For example: “I plan to get involved in pro-women’s rights initiatives at my school or in my community.”) Lastly, the participants rated the extent to which the journalist fit common stereotypes of feminists on a seven-point scale.

“We found that participants were less motivated to adopt pro-gender equality behaviours when the article was ostensibly delivered by the ‘typical’ feminist rather than by one of the other message sources,” says Bashir.

The studies were repeated for environmentalism with 140 American participants recruited online and the same conclusion was drawn.

“It’s important to keep in mind that this research is focused on how activists are perceived by others, rather than how they actually are,” she says. “The militant and eccentric characteristics do not necessarily describe the actual personality traits possessed by activists.”

Bashir’s findings are attracting attention here at home (read an article in the National Post) and around the world. (Read an article in Britain’s Daily Mail.) (Read an article at Salon.)

The research, titled “The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence” has been published in a recent issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology. The paper was co-written with U of T professors Penelope Lockwood and Alison Chasteen as well as Indra Noyes and The University of Waterloo’s Daniel Nadolny.