Why Your Moral Outrage Is Annoying, According to Science

He might be more informed on you on what's the most sustainable food here. Annoying, right?
He might be more informed on you on what's the most sustainable food here. Annoying, right? Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

People don’t like to hear how ethical your choices are, especially when they’re more thoughtful than their own. That’s the common-sense takeaway of a new study (actually three related studies, with nearly 200 undergrad participants in each one), published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. But the implications here run deeper. Not only does this help to explain why it’s so hard to get groups of people to act more ethically, it also gives insight as to why people who like to tout their own moral superiority are just so annoying.

In the study, researchers let participants choose whether to learn about a jean manufacturer’s practices regarding child labor use, for example, before making a theoretical decision to buy. Those who didn’t bother to find out rated those who did harshly, giving them high marks in negative traits such as “boring” and “odd” and low ones for positive traits such as “fashionable.”

The easier it was to find out how ethically products were made, the more blasé participants — referred to as “willfully ignorant” by researchers — expressed anger toward the “ethical others.” When it was more easily justified not to have bothered, the ignorant cut the others more slack.

What’s more, people who denigrated ethical others were less likely to make compassionate choices when given a chance to do so. Those in the “hard to justify willful ignorance” group were less likely than their more compassionate counterparts to take a “Think Green” pledge when offered.

The takeaway: “How ethical or moral you are as a person is an important part of your identity,” says study co-author Rebecca Reczek, associate professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. “People have a natural tendency to compare themselves to others. When they do so and find themselves wanting, they feel worse about themselves.”

These insights may also help explain the negative views many have about vegans and people who fuss over more sustainable diets. “If a choice of free-range eggs over conventional eggs is presented as a more moral or ethical choice, then I’d expect to see the same results,” Reczek says.

Most people do care about fair labor practices and sustainable production, Reczek says, and she hopes greater awareness of the tendency to denigrate ethical consumers might reduce some of the negative effects on the consumer end that they saw in their study.

“Advocacy groups can also learn from this work,” she adds. “Arguing that people are immoral or ‘bad’ people if they don’t engage in the desired act (whether it’s recycling or choosing sustainable seafood) is just going to turn people off and make them less likely to listen to the good reasons for choosing ethical behavior.”