Love the band, hate the fans? Study suggests people dig causes, not activists

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Activists might be getting in way of their causes, according to a new report by Canadian researchers.

Researchers from the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo found that peoples’ reluctance to associate with political or social activists lowers the likelihood of changing behaviors… even when people agree with the cause.

The paper, titled “The ironic influence of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence” examined  the possibility that people resist adopting certain behaviors because of negative stereotypes of those who most publicly promote them.

“Despite recognizing the need for social change in areas such as social equality and environmental protection, individuals often avoid supporting such change,” the paper begins.

Regardless of the domain of activism, environmentalists and feminists were seen by study participants as eccentric and militant.  In turn, this reduced participants’ willingness to adopt behaviors that activists promoted.

This reminds me of something that happened many years ago while meeting with a professor.  An activist with Florida PIRG came by  wanting us to sign a petition. He said that coal burning power plants emit too much mercury into water, which in turn is bad for fish.

My professor asked whether mercury kills the fish, to which the activist said, “No.”

My professor shrugged, “Well, in that case, I suppose mercury is great for fish, since it keeps us humans from wanting to eat them. If I am pro-fish, I believe that also makes me pro-coal.”  The activist left, befuddled, with no signatures for his time.

My classmate and I were puzzled, too, and asked if he was just being an ass.

“Of course,” he answered. “Of course mercury is bad and I’m not crazy about more coal. But those guys put me off as messengers.”

Quite the conundrum for people who want to effect social change.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy researcher, political consultant, and mother to three daughters. She can be reached at karen@cyphersgroup.com.