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By on October 18, 2013

Reducing resistance to social change: The ironic impact of activists

Cover of European Journal of Social PsychologySexual and domestic violence prevention work is social change work.  To successfully create social change we must also overcome resistance to it.  Attempting to understand the resistance, studies typically look at individual perceptions of the issues addressed, attitudes towards social change, and personality traits, but a new study in the European Journal of Social Psychology takes a different approach, turning the lens to activists:

Because activists, by definition, strive to effect change by publicly criticizing mainstream practices, they may be seen as hostile, unconventional and unpleasant. This tendency to associate activists with negative stereotypes may ultimately reduce individuals’  willingness to affiliate with activists and adopt the pro-change behaviours that activists espouse.

This five-part study found that participants who held negative perceptions of activists were less willing to affiliate with them and to adopt the behaviors they promoted.  For example, one portion of the study that focused specifically on feminist activists found:

…participants were less motivated to adopt pro-equality behaviours when these behaviours were ostensibly advocated by the typical’  feminist rather than when these same behaviours were advocated by the atypical’  feminist or the undefined target, because participants were more likely to associate the typical’  feminist with negative stereotypical traits. Thus, despite aggressively promoting social change, typical’ activists may, ironically, undermine individuals’  motivation to engage in pro-change behaviours.

Stereotypes played a big role in this research; they fostered negative perceptions of activists.  Most often, activists who were identified as “typical” (and therefore negatively perceived) were  viewed as eccentric and militant or aggressive.

For many activists, the willingness to take a radical stand without regard for mainstream sensibilities is a point of pride…Ironically and despite good intentions, therefore, the very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.

It is indeed ironic that the our very passion as activists may diminish our effectiveness in creating change and engaging others.  As disappointing as this is, this research acknowledges the difficulties many of us have faced in making our messages engaging to our audiences, shifting the lens to provide additional insight into barriers we may encounter.

Article citation: Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D. and Noyes, I. (2013), The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence. European Journal of Social Psychology. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1983

Click here to access the abstract.



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