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Don’t Fall Into the Changemaker Trap That Makes People Resist Positive Change

Written by Marsha Rakestraw | 8 Comments | Published on January 14, 2016 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2016/01/14/changemaker-trap-people-resist-positive-change/
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protestors speaking into megaphones

Image via Hanna Nikkanen/Flickr.

by Marsha Rakestraw

Awhile back I had dinner with some new non-vegan friends and colleagues. I was the only vegan there, and it came out that they’d been a bit concerned that I’d pull out my “vegan police” badge and start lecturing them about their food choices. When I told the person next to me that I don’t do that, he said he has met lots of vegans who are very judgmental and off-putting.

When I’m skimming my social media feeds, it’s very common to see someone vilifying and unkindly criticizing other people who don’t make the same humane choices they do. I wonder how often they reflect on what kind of impact their words are having.

In the work that I do as a humane educator, I encounter a lot of people who are passionate about creating a better world, and who carry with them a lot of anger and despair about all the cruelty, destruction, and injustice that we as humans perpetrate on other people, nonhuman animals, and the earth. It can be a real challenge not to lash out, not to judge, not to want to shame/guilt/coerce people in some way to make more compassionate choices.

But in our zeal to cultivate positive change, we can foment the opposite.

A study published in 2013 in the European Journal of Social Psychology, “The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence,” reveals just how strong a correlation there is between the behaviors of a few changemakers and the larger impact on citizens’ willingness to make changes. As the abstract says,

“Participants had negative stereotypes of activists (feminists and environmentalists), regardless of the domain of activism, viewing them as eccentric and militant. Furthermore, these stereotypes reduced participants’ willingness to affiliate with ‘typical’ activists and, ultimately, to adopt the behaviours that these activists promoted. These results indicate that stereotypes and person perception processes more generally play a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

In other words, if we, or other changemakers, come across as unreasonable, off-putting, hostile or judgmental, then most changemakers get thrown into the camp of unreliable or undesirable, and people are much less willing to make the changes we’d like them to. (Read more about the study here.)

As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The reality of how people react to and stereotype changemakers doesn’t mean we can’t work for significant and lasting change. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever show our anger. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever join a protest. It doesn’t mean we can’t be creative in our efforts.

But it does mean that it’s essential that we strive to make each and every encounter people have with us and our fellow changemakers a positive and inspiring one. It’s also important that we’re seeking the most effective strategies (such as humane education), rather than taking actions that might make us feel better, but that actually cause harm.

As IHE president Zoe Weil says, “… the more joyful and connected we are, the better we will be at making a difference, and the more likely others will want to join our rip-roaring, good fun, changemaking club.”

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About Marsha Rakestraw

Marsha is IHE's Director of E-learning, Education Resources, and Alumni Relations and part of the online course faculty. More

Contact Marsha View all articles by Marsha Rakestraw


Thank you for this important post Marsha. As we teach in non-violence, real change happens when we step beyond judgment to see what we have in common and work from there.

Thanks so much, Laura! Finding common ground and building bridges are so vital to positive and lasting change. And while being judgmental often makes us feel better, it rarely benefits those we are trying to help.

Kit Jagoda says:

Thank you for this insightful blog. This has been something I have struggled with in terms of finding the most effective and genuine ways to live. On one hand I have wondered if I am turning my back on animals who suffer if I don’t speak up for them in every possible way. But at the same time I see how certain methods would turn people away. I really like the Maya Angelou quote and think I’ll post it in several places as a good reminder!!

Thanks, Kit! I know so many of us struggle not to let our feelings of anger and despair overwhelm us and bleed out into our interactions with others. It’s so hard not to feel frustrated and impatient when we know how much suffering is involved. But planting those seeds of compassion (and being strategic about it so that we’re not turning people off) is helping the animals, not turning our backs on them.

Thanks for all you do!

Amen, Marsha!!!!! Love this. Yes, I see time and again that when I treat people with the compassion and understanding I’m encouraging/teaching people to make their own choices with, they soften, they open up, they let their guard down over time, feeling not judged but inspired. And this is where change is possible. There is much to be upset about, but compassion always wins.

Thanks, Megan! I have a T-shirt that says “Compassion is Invincible.” It may not work as quickly as we’d like, but it eventually gets the job done :) Sparking inspiration is so much more effective than making people feel defensive or judged. I know from personal experience!

Jody Lacroix says:

Wow, that is so much easier said than done, especially when you are having a hard time surrounding yourself with like minded individuals. It is hard to be a “party that everyone wants to join” when you find it hard to be joyfull among all the cruelty that is around you that most people decide not to see, because it is much easier to just look away. I know that it is important to inspire others to make better/less harmfull choices (one small change can lead to bigger change), but it can be difficult.

Marsha says:

Jody, thanks so much for your comment. You’re absolutely right that it can be incredibly difficult to model a message of joy and compassion amongst the horrific cruelty and destruction and injustice that we as humane educators and changemakers learn about. That’s one reason it’s so important for us to find ways to nurture ourselves, to develop coping skills, and to pursue avenues of support (whether virtual or in person).

And it’s also important for us to remember that how we interact with others can have a significant impact on their likelihood of embracing positive change. So working to develop strategies and skills for communicating compassionately and cultivating positive relationships is important for our activist toolkit. We can also work to pay attention to the times we’re not able to communicate compassionately and thus might need to step away, or postpone the conversation.

Being effective humane educators and changemakers is incredibly challenging, which is why we need to honor every success we have and acknowledge our courage in continuing on this path.