RSS
Why people hate feminists, environmentalists, and activists in general
A new study offers insight into why so many of us are unmoved by their grating do-good ways
 
A Greenpeace activist, dressed as a polar bear, sits inside a police car after being detained during a 2012 protest in Russia.
A Greenpeace activist, dressed as a polar bear, sits inside a police car after being detained during a 2012 protest in Russia. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

Can't stand man-hating feminists and hippie environmentalists? You're not the only one.

A new study from the University of Toronto published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that feminists, environmentalists, and activists in general may face an uphill battle gaining supporters because no one wants to be associated with their irritating do-gooder ways.

"Unfortunately, the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping," the researchers conclude from a series of experiments testing the perception of and behaviors of individuals toward feminists and environmentalists. "By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity."

One of the University of Toronto experiments asked 228 Americans to describe "typical feminists" and "typical environmentalists." The most commonly mentioned traits were "man-hating" and "unhygienic" for the former and "tree-hugger" and "hippie" for the latter. Ouch.

In another experiment, 140 Americans were asked to read an article advocating for climate change and sustainable lifestyles. One-third of participants were told it was written by a stereotypically extreme environmentalist (a fake author profile said, "I hold rallies outside chemical plants"); one-third were told it was written by a more moderate environmentalist (this profile said the author "raises money for grass-roots level environmental organizations); the final third were given an author profile that made no mention of environmental activism.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found people were "much less motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviors" when they were told the author was a stereotypical environmentalist. To add insult to injury, "this dynamic may very well apply across the board, such as to activities advocating gay rights or Wall Street reform," writes Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard.

It's a catch-22 for activists because the more involved and passionate they are for a cause, the less likely non-activists are to trust them or be moved by their arguments, say researchers:

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. [Pacific Standard]

But, there is a silver lining… sort of. The study notes that people "may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable."

You hear that, feminists and environmentalists? Be more pleasant! Be more approachable! And for goodness sake, take a shower and get your hands off that tree!

 
Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week