Menus Subscribe Search
climate-rally

Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013, in Washington, D.C., the largest climate rally in U.S. history. (PHOTO: RENA SCHILD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Environmentalism? Perhaps. Environmentalists? Ewww!

• September 25, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013, in Washington, D.C., the largest climate rally in U.S. history. (PHOTO: RENA SCHILD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Canadian researchers report people hold negative views of political and social activists, and their unwillingness to associate with such people dampens the likelihood of changing their behavior.

Why don’t people behave in more environmentally friendly ways? New research presents one uncomfortable answer: They don’t want to be associated with environmentalists.

That’s the conclusion of troubling new research from Canada, which similarly finds support for feminist goals is hampered by a dislike of feminists.

Participants held strongly negative stereotypes about such activists, and those feelings reduced their willingness “to adopt the behaviors that these activities promoted,” reports a research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir. This surprisingly cruel caricaturing, the researchers conclude, plays “a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

“By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”

Writing in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bashir and her colleagues describe a series of studies documenting this dynamic. They began with three pilot studies, which found people hold stereotyped views of environmentalists and feminists.

In one, the participants—228 Americans recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—described both varieties of activists in “overwhelmingly negative” terms. The most frequently mentioned traits describing “typical feminists” included “man-hating” and “unhygienic;” for “typical environmentalists,” they included “tree-hugger” and “hippie.”

Another study, featuring 17 male and 45 female undergraduates, confirmed the pervasiveness of those stereotypes. It further found participants were less interested in befriending activists who participated in stereotypical behavior (such as staging protest rallies), but could easily envision hanging out with those who use “nonabrasive and mainstream methods” such as raising money or organizing social events.

The results of three additional studies suggested this aversion to perceived stereotypical behavior impacts people’s behavior. In one of them, 140 Americans (again recruited via Mechanical Turk) read an article about climate change and “the need for individuals to adopt sustainable lifestyles.”

For one-third of the participants, the writer was described as a stereotypical environmentalist (his “profile” stated, “I hold rallies outside chemical research labs”). Another third were told he was an atypical, less-abrasive environmentalist (“I’m involved in organizing social events … to raise money for grassroots-level environmental organizations”). For the final third, his profile did not mention environmental activism at all.

After reading the article, participants were asked whether it inspired them to do more recycling, or otherwise take more eco-friendly actions.

“Participants were less motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviors when these behaviors were advocated by the ‘typical’ environmentalist, rather than by the ‘atypical’ environmentalist or the undefined target,” the researchers report.

This is, needless to say, frustrating news for activists, and not just the ones mentioned here. The researchers suggest this dynamic may very well apply across the board, such as to activities advocating gay rights or Wall Street reform.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”

“Furthermore, this tendency to associate activists with negative stereotypes and perceive them as people with whom it would be unpleasant to affiliate reduces individuals’ motivation to adopt the pro-change behaviors that activists advocate.”

So the message to advocates is clear: Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist. Realize that if people find you off-putting, they’re not going to listen to your message. As Bashir and her colleagues note, potential converts to your cause “may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable.”

Perhaps the Henny Youngman approach is the most effective: Save the Earth—please.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.