Mind changing can be risky

June 8, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

When leaders use a moral argument rather than a pragmatic one as the basis for a position, they may be judged harshly if they change that position later. They are perceived as hypocrites, less effective and less worthy of future support, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Leaders may choose to take moral stances, believing that this will improve audiences' perceptions. And it does, initially. But all people, even leaders, have to change their minds sometimes," said lead author Tamar Kreps, PhD, of the University of Utah. "Our research shows that leaders who change their moral minds are seen as more hypocritical, and not as courageous or flexible, compared with those whose initial view was based on a pragmatic argument. Due to this perception of hypocrisy, they are also seen as less effective and less worthy of ."

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the study, Kreps and her colleagues conducted a series of 15 experiments online involving more than 5,500 participants from the United States ranging in age from 18 to 77. In each experiment, participants learned about political or business leaders who had changed their opinion on an issue. Some participants were informed that the leaders' initial positions were based on a moral stance. Others were told the position was based on a pragmatic argument (e.g., it was good for the economy). Across the studies, participants rated the leader who changed his or her on the moral stance as more hypocritical and, in most instances, less effective and worthy of their support than leaders whose initial stance was pragmatic.

What surprised the researchers the most was how difficult it was to eliminate the effect, according to Kreps. "In different studies, we tried to test various factors we thought might weaken the effect. For example, what if the leader used the same moral value in the later view as in the earlier view? What if the leader did not rely on popular support and therefore would have no reason to pander? What about participants who believed in moral relativism, the view that there is no objective reality in the first place? None of those things made a difference—initially moral mind-changers consistently seemed more hypocritical," she said.

Kreps believes the findings suggest that people think that breaking moral commitments is not only difficult, but also wrong. "All in all, these results paint a glum picture for initially moral leaders. When leaders take a moral position, there appears to be little they can do to avoid being perceived as hypocritical should they find they later have to change their minds," said Kreps.

For leaders who insist on moral arguments, there is some good news if they have to change their minds later, according to Kreps. While in all cases, leaders who changed position on a moral stance were seen as more hypocritical, if leaders framed the change as a result of a personally transformative experience or out of their control due to external forces, they were not seen as less effective or unworthy of support.

"We know that moral beliefs do tend to stay more constant over time. So, should take moral stances only if they have the underlying beliefs to back up those stances," said Kreps. "Taking an inauthentic moral view to try to pander to a moralizing audience could backfire, if a leader needs to change that view later on."

Explore further: Judging moral character: A matter of principle, not good deeds

More information: "Hypocritical Flip-Flop or Courageous Evolution? When Leaders Change Their Moral Minds," by Tamar Kreps, PhD, University of Utah; Kristin Laurin, PhD, University of British Columbia; and Anna Merritt, PhD, Stanford University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online June 8, 2017.

Related Stories

Judging moral character: A matter of principle, not good deeds

May 3, 2017
People may instinctively know right from wrong, but determining if someone has good moral character is not a black and white endeavor.

People sensitive to sexual disgust more likely to be Kantian thinkers

April 14, 2017
Every person has both utilitarian (consequentialist) and Kantian (duty- or rule-based) moral intuitions, which are activated in different situations in different ways. The field of moral psychology studies these types of ...

New studies show moral judgments quicker, more extreme than practical ones—but also flexible

November 28, 2012
Judgments we make with a moral underpinning are made more quickly and are more extreme than those same judgments based on practical considerations, a new set of studies finds. However, the findings, which appear in the journal ...

Recommended for you

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

Cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

November 20, 2017
Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new ...

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

Risk of distracted driving predicted by age, gender, personality and driving frequency

November 17, 2017
New research identifies age, gender, personality and how often people drive as potential risk factors for becoming distracted while driving. Young men, extroverted or neurotic people, and people who drive more often were ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.