A Psychologist Tells Us What We're Getting Wrong About The Woke Movement

Sometimes it's a praise and sometimes it's an insult. Here's what psychological science can teach us about woke ideology.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 1, 2023

The term "woke" finds its roots in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Originally, it was a colloquialism that meant being alert or "awake" to societal injustices, especially those related to racial prejudice. It was a term used to highlight the systemic prejudices Black Americans face daily. It emphasized the need to stay informed, vigilant and proactive in the face of such adversities.

Today, it has been adopted—and often co-opted—by a vast demographic, far removed from its original context. Particularly on the internet, terms that once held significant cultural importance can become memes in the blink of an eye. And this is precisely what happened to wokeness within certain alt-right circles. For many, it became a way to mockingly reference individuals who are perceived to be "social justice warriors" or "SJWs."

In the social media age, activism has evolved. The internet amplifies awareness but also fosters "slactivism." Many champion causes online but fall short in following through with real-world action. And, while hashtags often trend worldwide, they often miss lasting commitment for genuine change.

A recent study published in Men and Masculinities delved into the trending South African hashtags: #MenAreTrash and #WomenAreTrash. While they intended to spotlight gender-based violence, these tags ignited profound debate and widespread controversy.

The study found that although many South Africans resonate with feminist values, the confrontational tone of #MenAreTrash often deters alignment. The study further underscored the historical context, noting the heightened insensitivity of the #MenAreTrash hashtag, given the enduring stereotype of Black South African men as dangerous. And, while some men endeavored to bridge understanding and champion the feminist cause, their messages were often overshadowed by a deluge of defensive #NotAllMen posts.

This dynamic mirrors a broader skepticism of "hashtag activism." A 2020 report by Pew Research found that 76% of Americans believe social media activists think they're effecting change, when in reality, their impact is often minimal. Moreover, 79% of Americans think that such activism distracts from graver concerns.

While hashtags raise awareness, there's growing consensus globally that their efficacy in driving tangible societal change is limited.

Interestingly, the phenomenon of being woke has even permeated the world of dating. This highlights the lengths to which individuals might go to fit into a narrative they believe is desirable, even if it means feigning knowledge or passion for topics they know little about.

So, where do we go from here? How can we be "woke" without turning ourselves into memes? Here are two things to keep in mind.

1. Understand That Being Critical Of The Status Quo Is A Necessity, Not A Trend

In a constantly evolving society, democracy is essential to counterbalance unchecked power, as those in authority don't always prioritize the public's interest. A robust democracy depends on alert citizens ensuring accountability. Being woke is about recognizing and upholding this vigilance.

However, in the pursuit of wokeness, it's easy to fall prey to confirmation bias. Our desire to be informed sometimes ironically makes us susceptible to misinformation, especially when we lean too heavily on a singular source.

A 2023 study published in Thinking and Reasoning looked into the cognitive science behind misinformation and revealed a spectrum of responses: some instantly accept false data based on gut feelings while others might rationalize it after contemplation. Yet, a few, after diligent thinking, can discern the falsehoods.

As Shane Littrel, the lead author of the study astutely advised, each one of us must practice "productive doubt," a skeptical mindset that encourages verification of claims. This intellectual humility (i.e., accepting that you could be wrong in your beliefs), especially in online spaces where information is democratized, safeguards not just our wokeness, but our overall well-being, decisions and actions.

2. Real-World Changes Are Made In The Real World, But There's A Catch

While global movements capture headlines, the roots of genuine change often lie in grassroots activism. It's comfortable and convenient to share a post about faraway issues while sipping coffee in a cozy home.

However, consider this: just around the corner, there might be schools struggling for resources or a once-beloved park now marred by litter and neglect. Not every cause will earn you social media brownie points, but they can reshape your community's daily life. Attend town hall meetings, volunteer at local shelters or support neighborhood initiatives. Your immediate environment holds countless opportunities to effect change. Make a difference where you can see, feel and experience the impact.

What's the catch, then? As it turns out, there is some merit to online activism. A 2020 study published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology found that online and offline activism go hand in hand to effect change. So, even if something you are passionate about is not "cool" enough for social media, post it. Get the conversation going so more like-minded individuals will take notice and replicate your efforts in their own social environments. While real change often happens in the real world, virtual spaces are great accelerators of discourse.


There's nothing wrong with being "woke." Embracing wokeness means championing awareness, empathy and activism. In a world inundated with information, it's crucial to discern fact from fiction, to move from mere online discourse to tangible actions and to recognize that meaningful change often starts at our doorsteps. Ultimately, genuine wokeness is about translating heightened awareness into actionable, impactful endeavors in the real world.