An article on Salon reported that scientists have recently shown that everyone hates environmentalists and feminists, that they do so because stereotypical activists are abrasive extremists, and that this stereotyping has prevented environmentalists and feminists from achieving their goals. These conclusions are simultaneously obvious and shocking. The reader is presumably aware of negative stereotypes of environmentalists, feminists, and activists in general, but do activists really hamper their own causes as the article claims? If so, the implications would be disturbing.
The original study is behind a paywall, but the primary author, psychology graduate student Nadia Bashir, has spoken about the study enough in the press to allow us to draw our own conclusions. In the first stages of the study, participants (recruited on Mechanical Turk) described feminists and environmentalists in their own terms, which researchers in turn described as “overwhelmingly negative.” Researchers used these descriptions to create profiles of “typical” (or stereotypical) and “atypical” activists, as well as profiles that did not mention activism at all. Participants in some trials read these profiles and rated how much the character they read about fit the traits assigned to activists in the first stage of the study, as well as how much they would like to be associated with the character. In other trials, participants also read an article on feminism or environmentalism that they were told was written by the individual whose profile they read. In these trials, participants answered questions about their agreement with feminist or environmentalist goals instead of about how much they wanted to associate with the character. In both of these trials (one about feminism and one about environmentalism), participants were more likely to agree with the article when the author was an “atypical” activist or was not described in activist terms at all. We don’t know how much more likely without reading the study, but even assuming the differences are very large, the inferences we would draw are pretty mild.
What the study most clearly implies is that, for an article written to persuade an audience unaffiliated with an activist movement, an activist writer shouldn’t self-identify as a “typical activist”. Specifically, they might not want to describe their protest organizing experience: “I hold rallies outside chemical research labs,” and “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,” are statements from the “typical” profiles used in the study. However, the researchers didn’t claim to find differences in effectiveness between the “atypical activists” and the characters described without reference to activism. Statements like “I’m involved in organizing social events … to raise money for grassroots-level environmental organizations,” and “I’m involved in organizing social events at clubs and lounges to raise money for women’s rights organizations,” didn’t impact credibility for the fictional activists, and the animal rights versions of them likely won’t for real activists either.
It’s critical to note that, in this study, there was no difference between the articles “written” by typical activists, atypical activists, and writers not labeled as activists at all. All the differences in response stemmed from the author biographies and the perceptions participants formed based on them. It might make sense to extend the conclusions of the study past writing articles to activities like public speaking, talking to acquaintances, or producing videos and images. However, the study doesn’t tell activists anything about what messages to include there or in their writing. It only suggests that, when talking about themselves, they should emphasize the activities they engage in that are most understandable and mainstream and downplay or omit more radical activities.
Because in reality activists who self-describe in very mainstream ways also say and do different things than activists who self-describe in ways that fit the stereotypes, the study can’t tell us which of these groups are more effective in the real world. In an interview with the National Post, Bashir said, “It’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s the more militant people who are driving the changes that are happening, or whether it is the people who are more mainstream.” We agree with this statement; the conclusions available from this study, even assuming the best in terms of the strength of the evidence it provides for its claims, are limited in scope. It doesn’t, as the article that appeared in Salon claimed, prove that one must “[a]void rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist” in order to be effective. Rather, it suggests that once an activist has identified what gets their point across, they should present themselves as mainstream and approachable while doing what needs to be done. As often happens, the science behind a broad claim supports only a very specific part of it; generalizations are easy to make, but shouldn’t be accepted without further research.