Why Moral Leaders Are Annoying

Byron_1824 Josh Rothman over at The Boston Globe's Brainiac:

Moral leadership is challenging for an obvious reason — you have to know what's right and wrong. But it's also difficult because, on the whole, people are ambivalent about moral crusaders. Now there's a name for that strange mixture of admiration, guilt, and defensive dismissiveness you feel when you encounter someone better than you: it's called “anticipated reproach,” and Benoît Monin, a psychologist at Stanford, has studied it in a number of fascinating experiments. His essential finding: The more we feel as though good people might be judging us, the lower they tend to fall in our regard. As he explains in a recent paper, coauthored with Julia Minson of Wharton, “overtly moral behavior can elicit annoyance and ridicule rather than admiration and respect” when we feel threatened by someone else's high ethical standards.

Monin has documented the effect most vividly in a 2008 study, “The Rejection of Moral Rebels: Resenting Those Who Do the Right Thing,” written with Pamela Sawyer and Matthew Marquez. It revolves around a simple task, in which you're asked to decide which of three suspects is most likely to have committed a burglary. To make the decision, you consult a group of photographs and a table of evidence. The evidence clearly points to one of the suspects, “Steven Jones”: he's unemployed, has no alibi, and has been arrested carrying cash and a screwdriver. He's also — as his photo reveals — African-American. The task is set up, in fact, so that you have little choice but to accuse Jones of burglary, and to explain your reasoning in writing at the bottom of the questionnaire.

Along with the detective work, Monin asked participants to perform another task — sometimes beforehand, sometimes afterward. In this second task, you're given another participant's questionnaire, and asked to rate and describe that participant's personality. Unbeknownst to you, the questionnaire you're given is fictional. Sometimes it explains why Jones must have done it (“I think Steven Jones did it because 1) He’s got no real alibi, 2) He’s done it before, and 3) He’s carrying a lot of cash….”); other times, it articulates a principled objection to the whole experiment. There's no face circled on the “rebel” questionnaire. Instead the 'previous participant' has lodged a protest: “I refuse to make a choice here — this task is obviously biased… Offensive to make black man the obvious suspect. I refuse to play this game.”

The study works, essentially, by swapping the order of the two tasks. The results are striking. Participants who looked at the rebel questionnaire and rated its author before accusing Jones tended to admire the rebel, using words like “strong,” “independent,” and “socially conscious” to describe him. By contrast, participants who encountered the rebel questionnaire after accusing Jones of burglary tended to find fault with him, describing him as “self-righteous,” “defensive,” “opinionated,” and “confused.” Implicit in the rebel's objection, after all, was an accusation of racism. The threat of that accusation was enough to make participants change their opinions, replacing respect with dismissiveness.