By Alex Fradera
Many commentators considered President Obama’s reversal on same-sex marriage an act of courage. But this isn’t how the public usually perceives moral mind-changers, according to a team led by Tamar Kreps at the University of Utah. Their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggest that leaders who shift from a moral stance don’t appear brave – they just look like hypocrites.
The researchers conducted 15 studies, of which I’ll focus on one example that illustrates the core approach. Nearly 800 participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk read scenarios where a member of the US Congress took a stance on either the death penalty or same-sex marriage. In some cases, their stance was pragmatic, indicated in their statement through phrases like “it’s a matter of not having to invest in the cost of changing government systems”. In other cases the justification for the stance was moral – “it’s a matter of justice.”
Participants rated their initial feelings about the politician and then learned that he or she had since changed their tune, again making a statement based on either pragmatic or moral reasons. For example, a statement might read “It’s still a moral issue for me…I’ve realized, though, that we can never be 100 per cent certain that the convicted party is guilty, and truly defending justice means never taking the risk of killing an innocent victim.” Finally, participants rated the politicians again.
When their initial stance was moral rather than pragmatic, the political leaders suffered costs and gained no benefits after changing their moral mind. Participants rated them as less effective, less worthy of support and more hypocritical, with the intensity of hypocrisy driving the other two negative judgments. Even those participants who agreed with moral mind-changers’ new position saw them as hypocritical, although slightly less so than other participants. At the same time, moral mind changers were seen as no more courageous, effective, or worthy of support, compared to the congress men and women who changed their initial pragmatically grounded position.
Kreps’s team found this same effect in various scenarios, including a manager deciding whether to take on an environmentally friendly supply system, politicians considering immigration reform, and business leaders considering whether to use sex to sell their products. One study used stimuli that more closely resembled real life through “attack ads” accusing an opponent of flip-flopping. Although not all of the 15 studies produced significant effects, a meta-analysis across all the data, involving nearly 6,000 participants, suggested a strong level of support for the core findings (a few non-significant studies were entirely to be expected given the size of the effect was modest).
The results suggest that abandoning a moral position will almost certainly cost you. Changing a key belief may put you at odds with friends and family and be seized on by your enemies, casting you as a commitment-breaker – as dishonest or inauthentic for sacrificing what you had said was a sacred cow (and all the more so if changing one’s moral position for pragmatic reasons, according to the studies that looked at this reason for change).
However, one final study provided a “glimmer of hope” for evolving moral leaders. When participants heard that the leader’s moral shift was triggered by a transformative event, such as spending time with a death row inmate, they remained critical in terms of hypocrisy, but simultaneously rated them as more courageous.
Much of the leadership literature to date has suggested there are only benefits to expressing moral positions, making this one of the first studies to show a potential downside, and – if leaders have an instinct for the effects shown here – it could explain why they are often keen to hold back from taking moral positions. Kreps and her colleagues conclude that “moral talk is not cheap – those who deviate from their initial moral views pay a price…and leaders may do well to avoid it in the absence of true, enduring conviction.”