12.8 Should we? How appeals to moral responsibility affect group-level behavioural change

The primary aim of this project is to explore the negative effect of appeals to people’s moral responsibility as well as how can we diminish these effects. In order to turn a vicious cycle of avoiding moral responsibility and a lack of behavioral change into a virtuous one, including the intrinsic motivation and subsequent efforts to establish actual behavioral improvements.

Project info

Project consists of following studies
Due to the importance of morality for people’s social identity, their belongingness to and inclusion in a group, community or society, and intragroup norms and values, appeals to moral responsibilities may be effective in activating the motivation to engage in joint behavioral improvements and taking responsibility for shared social outcomes. However, since the interpretation of appeals to moral responsibility may cause a threat, this could also extrapolate onto interaction partners or fellow group members, resulting in the adverse effects to become largescale. This could especially be the case when informational messages conveying appeals to responsibility come from (perceived) outgroups. To optimally use social influence in moral appeals, we thus aim to obtain insight in which appeals could have the danger of become enlarged in a defensive sense by the social structure—potentially increasing intergroup conflict or polarization—and which moral appeals can enhance intra- and intergroup (i.e., shared) responsibility, joint engagement and action, and hence increase collective sustainable behavior.
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
Mandy Muller
Utrecht University
Prof.dr. Naomi Ellemers
Utrecht University
Prof.dr. Vincent Buskens
Utrecht University
Dr. Félice van Nunspeet
Utrecht University
  • Responsibility
  • Social psychology
  • Sociology
Work package
  • Synthesis
Sustainability threat
  • Feedback Cycles
  • Shared responsibility and sustainable cooperation
Theoretical background
Besides the importance of morality for people’s self-view, which can affect how they respond to moral appeals about their individual behavior, morality is also essential within interpersonal relations and groups. Common ground about moral values can be apparent in the norms that are shared among self-relevant others, such as ingroup members, and this in turn can affect behavior. Interestingly, research has revealed that when an ingroup norm explicitly describes that a course of action is perceived by one’s ingroup as the morally right thing to do, this helps other group members to decide to act in accordance with such a norm—regardless of whether those norms prescribe pro self or prosocial behavior (Ellemers et al., 2008; Pagliaro et al., 2011). Furthermore, research shows that people are not only inclined to decide to behave in line with what the moral norms of fellows group members prescribe, they also decide more quickly to do so—as revealed by reduced response latencies when informed about the moral, as compared to the smart, course of action according to one’s group (Ellemers et al., 2008). In line with research showing group members’ compliance to moral norms, regardless of the nature of the behavior they prescribe, are findings of different programs of research which suggest that various mechanisms can antagonize groups that endorse different moral values. Confronting the moral values of the other group does not prompt them to reconsider their moral behaviors. Instead, this typically works counterproductively as it tends to raise threat responses, infrahumanization of those who confront one's moral values, distancing between the groups, and mutual displays of hostility (e.g., Skitka & Mullen, 2002; Pacilli et al., 2016; Kouzakova et al., 2014). Less detrimental, yet also potentially resulting in adverse effects on moral behavioral improvements, is the effect that moral criticism stemming from outgroup members is especially counterproductive as it raises defensive responses and reluctance to change (the intergroup sensitivity effect, Hornsey et al., 2002). Then again, within groups, an emphasis on the moral implications of one’s behavior may have positive effects on behavioral change. Consistent with the research showing that people are inclined to adhere to moral norms, which can have important positive effects when the behavior prescribed has positive outcomes for the greater community (or in our projects, for the planet, for instance when reducing the ecological footprint), are findings revealing that ingroup norms that are apparent from the social evaluation by fellow group members can also have positive effects. That is, when people are asked to perform a task indicative of their moral values, they become even more motivated to perform this task well when an ingroup member is evaluating their performance (van Nunspeet et al., 2015). Furthermore, in addition to the positive effects of offering people opportunities to improve their behavior or to achieve future moral goals and ideals (rather than to meet moral obligations), moral opportunities (behavioral decisions offering people the chance to restore their moral self-view and image as group member) can even be effective in stimulating moral behavior when past moral failures were not made on one's personal address, but by fellow group members (Van der Toorn, Ellemers, & Doosje, 2015). That is, when participants were first confronted with moral transgressions committed by their group members, the opportunity to improve the moral image of their group (by explaining the importance of and achieving the ideal of improving moral conduct) reduced their self-reported perception of threat—and increased the intention to address or change one's behavior. Importantly, the previous research described above examined individuals’ interpretation and responses to group-level moral values, norms and behaviors. In the current projects, we instead focus on group members’ responses to appeals to their moral responsibility for current macro-level outcomes and future improvement. More specifically, we will examine how interaction partners and members of small and larger groups respond to such appeals (in terms of their expectations of oneself and the other[s], and their motivation to change depending on the others’ motivation to change) and how these response in turn influences the behavior of (the) other(s). As in the first project, behaviors will relate to current unsustainable behaviors in the domain of consumption, energy use, and travel preferences that result in a big(ger) ecological footprint—as well as alternative/future sustainable behaviors that result in a smaller ecological footprint.
Research design
The first line of research will be devoted to the counterproductive behavioral effects of current appeals to retrospective responsibility, that is, of blaming people for not having done what they should have done. Similar to the previous project, the focus will be on informational messages addressing negative macro-level outcomes of individual behaviors, typically used to signal the urgency of behavioral change by portraying the devastating consequences of past developments (e.g., effects of CO2 emissions on climate change). More specifically, we will examine the responses of interaction partners and group members to messages emphasizing either the role they have had as a community member (individual responsibility), or the role their community has, as well as the role organizations and the government have had (collective responsibility), in the devastating consequences of past developments. We will examine how such messages affect people’s self-reported explanations (rationalizations) of their own past behavior in comparison to others’ behaviors, and their perceived need to change their behavior because of this retrospective responsibility, as well as how they expect other community members to behave due to this retrospective responsibility. In addition, we will investigate how, or to what extent, impression management and people’s reputational concerns play a role in their willingness to change their behavior. The second line of research will focus on creating a virtuous cycle by testing alternative, presumably more effective ways by shifting to appeals on people’s prospective moral responsibility. That is, we shift from what people should have done to what they should or can do now and in the future. Similar to the first line of research, we will compare the effects of framing this moral (prospective) responsibility to engage in behavioral change as people’s individual responsibility as a community member, or the collective responsibility of their community, organizations, and the government. We will examine what effects the informational messages have on the explicit expectations, intentions and behaviors of group members (e.g., how they respond to one another). In addition, we will investigate whether, or to what extent, people align their own behavior with the behavior of other group members, and how (new) group norms come about. In this line of research, we will measure both explicit expectations of oneself and others, as well as actual behavioral decisions. To this end, we will use an economic game, the public good game, in addition to self-report questionnaires. The public good game is used to examine how much people, among other group members, are inclined to invest in a public good while the pay-off of the public good is evenly divided among players. Related to the topic of the current projects, this might translate into what personal sustainable choices participants are willing to make within a group, while any such investment will result in a lower ecological footprint with positive effects for everyone. Furthermore, participants may be asked to take on the role of community member or the government and make investment decisions on their behalf in order to examine how contributions of both citizens and the government impact on the distribution of investments and the sense of moral responsibility for the public good. Inherent to the focus on examining the more fundamental social processes associated with the interpersonal and intragroup effects of appeals to moral responsibility, as well as the aim to examine both self-reported responses and actual behavioral tendencies, the first two proposed lines of research will consist of studies conducted online or in the lab at the sociology department to be able to constitute the group-level atmosphere. In the third line of research, we aim to design a complete intervention and test this in the field. In the second line of research, we aim to reveal whether including the role of organizations and the government in prospective responsibility for future sustainable developments (i.e., emphasizing collective responsibility) will either enhance or reduce people’s sense of their responsibility as a community member to change their behavior and their actual subsequent behavioral decisions. Based on the findings, we will design an intervention which we aim to test among a relevant sample in an applied setting in the field. We aim to test these effects on an explicit level using a combination of both quantitative (self-report measures) and qualitative methods (interviews, observing behavior).
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