New research has uncovered an asymmetry between how activists and non-activists evaluate each other. The study, published in PLOS One, indicates that activists have a more negative view of non-activists than vice versa.
“My PhD project focused on social change and collective action. But I was also politically active for a couple of years during my undergrads (e.g., during the Occupy movement) and I always wondered how the general public perceives the movement and whether there is something activists can do better to reach a wider audience,” said study author Maja Kutlaca, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Osnabrück, Germany.
In field experiments and online surveys, which included 324 activists and 226 non-activists, the researchers asked participants to evaluate a fictitious member of the other group. In other words, activists were asked to evaluate non-activists and non-activists were asked to evaluate activists.
The researchers visited a protest against the student loan system at The Hague, demonstrations in Amsterdam and Paris during United Nations climate change talks, and a protest against nuclear weapons in New York to gather data.
Kutlaca and her colleagues found that activists did not feel personally close to non-activists and viewed them as selfish. Activists also perceived larger differences between themselves and the non-activists than non-activists did, who tended to view activists in a more positive light.
There was also some evidence that different motivations for inaction impacted how activists viewed non-activists. Activists disliked the most a member of the general public who supported the goals of their protest but did not feel morally obliged to demonstrate themselves.
“Prior work and practice suggest that social change depends on a strong bond between a political movement and the general public. What activists can do to improve and secure this relationship is to be aware that sometimes they can be too judgmental of those who do not show up at a protest,” Kutlaca told PsyPost.
“If activists perceive their audience as selfish and very different from themselves, it is less likely that they will engage in a successful conversation. Being mindful of these psychological barriers may help activists develop better campaigns and mobilization strategies.”
“We did not get to examine face-to-face interaction between activists and their audience: in an interaction both groups can get a more nuanced understanding of each other’s motives and potentially influence each other’s views,” Kutlaca added.
“Moreover, social change takes time and public views of a movement (and vice versa) can change. I believe that following the relations between activists and the general public over a longer period of time would deepen our understanding of psychological factors that contribute to a movement’s success.”
The study, “Friends or foes? How activists and non-activists perceive and evaluate each other“, was authored by Maja Kutlaca, Martijn van Zomeren, and Kai Epstude.
(Photo credit: Jeanne Menjoulet)