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12.07 Should I? How appeals to moral responsibility affect individual level behavioural change

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Project Description

We are in an era where humanity is confronted with significant challenges such as climate change, social inequality, and mass migration movements. Given that these issues are profoundly linked to human activities, long-term sustainable solutions can only be achieved through people’s commitment to behavioral change.

Previous research established that morality can be a strong motivation for behavior regulation (Ellemers & Van Den Bos, 2012). Since people are driven to be moral and want to be seen as moral by others, appealing to their moral responsibilities (e.g., environmentally friendly behaviors) may enhance people’s willingness to align their actions with moral norms and values (Van Nunspeet & Ellemers, 2023). However, moral appeals may also lead to backlash and have counterproductive effects when these are perceived as moral criticism (Rösler et al., 2021).

This PhD project is therefore focused on investigating the potential (counter)productive effects of moral appeals, and developing effective ways to appeal to moral responsibilities without triggering defensive reactions. Importantly, by employing a multi-method approach that involves behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging techniques, the project will examine the underlying neurocognitive and psychophysiological mechanisms associated with appeals to people’s moral responsibility. Finally, the project aims to design a comprehensive intervention strategy that can lead to behavior regulation through a change in mindset. This intervention strategy will be tested in the field to determine if the effects observed in a laboratory setting hold true in a real-world social context (e.g., established in collaboration with ARTIS-Planetarium). The findings of this PhD will contribute to the development of promising strategies to turn the vicious cycle of evading responsibility into a virtuous cycle of taking responsibility.

Aim of the project

More generally, the aim of the interrelated projects is to investigate the adverse effect of appeals to people’s moral responsibility as well as how can we mitigate these effects, in order to turn a vicious cycle of evading moral responsibility and a lack of behavioural change into a virtuous one including the intrinsic motivation and subsequent efforts to establish actual behavioural improvements.

In this project, we focus on individual-level behavioural change, and aim to further unravel the internal underlying processes associated with appeals to people’s moral responsibility—affecting their thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and hence influencing (private) behavioural preferences. More specifically, we will examine the (psychophysiological) discomfort, aversion or threat, associated with confrontational information implying the need for people to change their behaviour (i.e., moral criticism, affecting their moral self-view and potentially resulting in moral disengagement or different rationalization strategies); the (psychophysiological) state of challenge and cognitive attentiveness or engagement, when people feel they can cope with situations that demand change (because of high self-efficacy or sense of control); or the motivation to present themselves as a genuine group member by complying to moral group norms and the internalization of those norms (i.e., the alignment between social norm compliance and one’s personal moral values). We will examine these internal, intrapersonal, underlying processes using (psycho)physiological and neuroscientific measures.

Theoretical background

Research shows that people are motivated to be moral, and to appear moral in their own eyes and the eyes of others (Ellemers, 2017; Van Nunspeet et al., 2014; 2015; Van Nunspeet & Ellemers, 2023). On the one hand, this implies that moral appeals may enhance people’s willingness to change their behaviour in line with moral group norms and values. However, research has also revealed that moral appeals may backfire when this is perceived as moral criticism. Across many groups and contexts, raising awareness about people’s own negative behaviours or confronting them with negative (moral) judgements others have of them, has been found to raise defensive responses. Instead of motivating people to repair what they presumably did wrong, or attempt change, they show moral disengagement, cognitive inattentiveness, and may find ways to justify or excuse their past behavioural shortcomings (e.g., Doosje et al., 1998; Parker et al., 2018; Van Zomeren et al., 2012; Taüber et al., 2015; Rösler et al., 20219; 2023). Moreover, research findings reveal that being attributed moral wrongdoings makes people feel guilty, causes a psychophysiological threat response, and reduces people's sense of being able to address the situation or to motivate them to improve their behaviour in the future (Van der Lee, Ellemers, & Scheepers, 2016; Van der Lee et al., 2023). Taken together, research has shown that when applied unsuccessfully, moral appeals can raise discomfort and even threat within individuals who do not (yet) live up to moral standards. Importantly, instead of increasing people’s motivation to change, threat responses are likely to prevent people from changing their behaviour. In contrast, yet in line with the potential of moral appeals to positively affect behaviour, research has shown that highlighting moral ideals helps people to initiate action, makes them more eager to approach their goals and desired outcomes, and that this reduces both social identity threat as well as a psychophysiological threat response (Does et al., 2011; 2012). Moreover, people should be focused on what they can do (differently) in the future. Research has shown that in a situation in which people are offered the opportunity (rather than the obligation) to show their moral motivation, explicitly emphasizing the moral implications of their behaviour can be effective as this encourages them to do well and (unconsciously) makes them more alert to monitor their own behavioural responses (Van Nunspeet et al., 2014). Importantly, the research described above examined how people respond to moral appeals on people’s (past) choices and behaviours—often presented in a form of judgment or criticism. In the current projects, we instead focus on appeals to people’s moral responsibility for choices and behaviour. Informational messages in this project will therefore explicitly emphasize individuals’ moral responsibility for negative macro-level outcomes and future improvements stemming from individual behaviours. These behaviours will relate to current unsustainable behaviours in the domain of consumption, energy use, and travel preferences that result in a big(ger) ecological footprint—as well as alternative/future sustainable behaviours that result in a smaller ecological footprint. We expect that people will perceive informational messages that convey appeals to their responsibility as moral criticism, resulting in (implicit) discomfort and threat and adverse effects on (intentional) behavioural change. In order for moral appeals to be effective in stimulating sustainable behaviours or behavioural change, these negative effects need to be overcome for which we will test alternative ways of framing such appeals to people’s moral responsibility.