The Plight of Being a Boycotter

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.

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 be 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 not 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.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
Cramwinckel, F.M., van Dijk, E., Scheepers, D., & van den Bos, K. (2013). The threat of moral refusers for one’s self-concept and the protective function of physical cleansing Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.07.009


2 Responses to The Plight of Being a Boycotter

  1. Steven Hess says:

    This alone is an interesting study in how people can be influenced by people based on their opinions. This test seems to be similar to the experiments done by Solomon Asch in 1956. In his experiments he looked at the effects of conformity. Relating the two experiments, it seems that, despite people following the general population’s lead they will harbor ill perceptions of those that force them into moral situations. Is it possible that this ill feeling is not isolated to moral issues, but rather any situation when an individual feels pressured by the majority to conform to the norm? This situation places the individual in a position where they were initially in the wrong. In the post it says that the confederated who didn’t use morality as their justification were not voted less favorable. This doesn’t prove that morality is the key factor, since the individual isn’t be pressured into conforming. The morality of the situation is conforming factor. Perhaps it is the act of being forced into conformity by unwanted forces that causes less favorable perceptions of people.

  2. Kim Brown says:

    Whoa. I’m glad that this wasn’t some article about sit-downs and civil violence. Something as simple as just refusing to buy a sweater from (somewhere) because of (reasons) actually affects a lot of us, and I’ve heard the same expression from members of the family. It’s been an interesting read, so thank you!

    I think when someone decides that they want to boycott a company or service, they’re gonna have a negative attitude about it, of course! When a friend or someone comes along and gets happy about the thing they’re boycotting (like the two with the sweater, which was probably cute regardless of where it was made), of course there’s going to be conflict. And after the boycotter tells others his/her reasons, are others going to conform, also, just because that person slaps down a few reasons? I would feel threatened, too, if someone was shoving morals down my throat. Morals is always a touchy, conflicting subject, anyway, especially when you have the other party feel like they’re on the defensive.

    Perhaps people think that refusing something, or a service, brand, whatever – refuse because they want to be rewarded, favored, or something. People usually tend to congratulate themselves for doing something they perceive as “good”. I read a little something something in my Psychology book (I’m a college student, not some kind of expert, mind you) about how attitudes affect behavior, and wow – I think it makes sense! Insert that friend about sweaters, and let them preach that social justice – he might have wanted the other person to praise him or agree: “Yeah, sweatshops are awful! Thanks so much for telling me!” (or some spiel like that) And that would have probably made him feel better, yeah? – give some of that self satisfaction. And the behavior, of course, is not shopping at the place that doesn’t buy the sweater.

    It was kind of funny to read that people who felt threatened by eating meat washed their hands with soap to “cleanse” themselves of it. Wow. People who ate meat before didn’t have a problem before being “threatened” by someone who didn’t think meat was unethical, right? Oh, influence. I mean, if it makes them feel better, it makes them feel better. It doesn’t change the fact that they ate it. It’s in their bodies. But i digress…

    So again, thanks for a good read, and making me think a little about a few things.

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