The Inertia Trap

How the way we think can be an enemy of change

The Plight of Being a Boycotter

Refusing for moral reasons can rub others the wrong way.

It's Sunday afternoon and you and a friend are strolling down the boulevard, peeking into various store windows in the hope of finding a breathtaking fall outfit. Suddenly, staring back at you from the Ambercrombie window is a stunning sweater vest. It's exactly what your friend needs for his online dating site photo. But when you express your enthusiasm he stops you. "I'll never buy anything from them. They use sweatshops."

These types of moral refusals arise all the time, whether they involve coffee that was imported with a lack of fairness, a sports team featuring an athlete of questionable character, or a potential employer that's a little too focused on making money. In these situations the standard way of explaining your behavior is to proudly tell the truth: You don't believe it would be morally right to lend your support.

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But sometimes these innocent explanations can have unintended consequences. When you provide a moral explanation for not doing something that somebody else was willing to do, it poses a threat to their moral standing. In a very indirect way you're calling them immoral. And nobody likes to be called immoral. Might there consequences for publicly stating your moral opposition?

According to a new study from a group of Dutch researchers, people tend to view moral refusers less favorably. In one experiment participants tasted a piece of sausage and were then confronted by confederates who had refused to taste the sausage. Confederates who explained their decision by saying that eating meat was unethical were rated less favorably than confederates who simply explained that they didn't like the taste of meat. The researchers also measured participants' cardiovascular responses, and they found that participants who were confronted with a moral reason for eating meat entered a physiological state that was more indicative of threat.

All of this is bad news for moral refusers. They may think they're helping people out by creating awareness of important issues, but they may actually be going around and making people feel threatened.

A follow-up experiment not only confirmed the initial findings, it also found evidence that the impact of a moral refuser was mitigated if the participants washed their hands with soap after eating the meat. The reasoning is that the cleansing leads to positive self-evaluation, and this positive evaluation counteracts the negative evaluation that results from being confronted with the idea that you've done something immoral.

The findings offer one explanation for why it can be so difficult to drum up support for initiatives with moral undertones. Every attempt to rally somebody to your cause initiates it's own little psychological pushback as they fight against the threat you've posed to their pristine morals. If what you're proposing is morally right, and they aren't already supporting your cause, then they can't possibly be morally perfect. But nobody wants to believe that so they disparage you, and by extension, your boycott.

That's not to say that you shouldn't lay the moral smackdown on people who fail to support what you believe to be morally necessary. Just know that they may defend against your implicit accusations of immorality by choosing to see you in a less favorable light. And so if you're dealing with a relatively insignificant issue (e.g. your vegetarianism), and you're in the middle of attempting to make an extremely important first impression, it may be better to pass on the moral explanation.

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Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher.

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