Cause4Opinion

The Challenges of Advocacy

Advocacy and raising awareness about a charitable cause can be both challenging and frustrating. It can be surprisingly difficult to get people to engage with your ideas and avoid coming across as self-righteous. Environmentalists and feminists are often negatively stereotyped, and street fundraisers branded as “charity muggers”. Recent research backs this up: these negative stereotypes are a barrier to social change.

How can advocates and activists avoid this problem? Firstly, it is worth understanding why many people react negatively. Psychologists refer to “cognitive dissonance”: the unpleasant feeling that your beliefs about yourself do not align with your actions. This feeling can lead to three outcomes: you change your actions, you change your beliefs or you come up with a justification for why there isn’t really a conflict between the two.

The third option is clearly the easiest, and researchers have found that it is the most common. One study confronted religious people with evidence- fabricated but presented as authoritative – that disproved their religion. Participants who agreed that the evidence was convincing also reported feeling more convinced that their religious beliefs were correct than before.

People do not like the feeling of cognitive dissonance, and will go out of their way to avoid having their empathy evoked. It is therefore important to frame your ideas as an exciting opportunity to do good, rather than being judgemental or guilt tripping.

College Liberal meme - how can activists avoid being like her?

Self-identity and social norms play a big role in people’s willingness to listen to an idea. This is a challenge, because all social movements start out as non-mainstream. To get around this, activists should try to appear to be similar to their audience. Researchers who asked a passerby for a dime were more likely to receive it when they were dressed similarly to the person they asked[1]. Telling someone that the majority of people already partake in a particular behaviour, increases the likelihood of that person adopting the same behaviour[2].

In addition to these practical tips, there are a couple of important lessons here. Firstly, successful social movements (civil rights, abolitionists etc) nearly always started out with a minority of activists who had to overcome significant resistance to their ideas. The slave trade seems very obviously wrong now, but it didn’t always. Therefore, it is worth asking ourselves, what will our great-grandchildren think about the mainstream opinions and behaviours of our generation?

Secondly, the fact that people are resistant to rational arguments for change should make us, as advocates, wary of falling into the same trap. If we come across new evidence or information that calls into question the effectiveness of our approach, or even the validity of our cause, we should be open to changing tack.

How do you think  that activists can get better at advocating for a cause? Let us know in the comments below. To learn more about this subject, read A Change of Heart by Nick Cooney, an excellent source of information.


[1] Emswiller,Deaux, and Willits 1971 “similarity, sex and requests for small favours”. Journal of applied social psychology

[2] Erb H, Bohner G, Schmilzle K and S Rank. “Beyond conflict and discrepancy: Cognitive Bias and Majority Influence”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1998

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