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.
Lord Byron was a vegetarian. What do you think he thought of meat-eaters?
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.
Once you know how to spot it, "anticipated reproach" is everywhere, and it bedevils people who want to lead morally. Argue on behalf of an environmental cause, and non-environmentalists, anticipating your moral reproach, will think you're stuck-up and self-righteous. Often, the anticipated reproach -- driven, as it is, by fear -- is exaggerated and caricatured: vegetarians, Monin finds, aren't nearly as judgmental of meat-eaters as meat-eaters think they are. Unfortunately, one or two genuinely judgmental do-gooders can put everyone else on a hair-trigger, twisting discussion about moral issues into a vicious circle, in which both parties anticipate reproaches from one another, and put each other down in advance.
What's to be done? Monin argues that we need to keep in mind one of the classic lessons of social psychology: Our moral views are all tangled up in our social lives. If we're going to talk with one another about moral issues, we need to cultivate an awareness of the ways in which social hierarchies and interpersonal tensions cloud our judgments. And it helps, of course, to have a name for a feeling. Once you know what it's called, it's easier to stop doing it.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.