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Sunday, August 7, 2022

Communication Strategies for Moral Rebels: How to Talk About Change in Order to Inspire Self-Efficacy in Others

Brouwer, C., Bolderdijk, J.-W., Cornelissen, G., 
& Kurz, T. (2022). WIREs Climate Change, e781.


Current carbon-intensive lifestyles are unsustainable and drastic social changes are required to combat climate change. To achieve such change, moral rebels (i.e., individuals who deviate from current behavioral norms based on ethical considerations) may be crucial catalyzers. However, the current literature holds that moral rebels may do more harm than good. By deviating from what most people do, based on a moral concern, moral rebels pose a threat to the moral self-view of their observers who share but fail to uphold that concern. Those observers may realize that their behavior does not live up to their moral values, and feel morally inadequate as a result. Work on “do-gooder derogation” demonstrates that rebel-induced threat can elicit defensive reactance among observers, resulting in the rejection of moral rebels and their behavioral choices. Such findings suggest that advocates for social change should avoid triggering moral threat by, for example, presenting nonmoral justifications for their choices. We challenge this view by arguing that moral threat may be a necessary ingredient to achieve social change precisely because it triggers ethical dissonance. Thus, instead of avoiding moral justifications, it may be more effective to harness that threat. Ethical dissonance may offer the fuel needed for observers to engage in self-improvement after being exposed to moral rebels, provided that observers feel capable of changing. Whether or not observers feel capable of changing, however, depends on how rebels communicate their moral choices to others—how they talk about change.

From the Conclusion

The theories reviewed point to the crucial importance of people feeling confident about their capabilities to change when they are confronted with their own perceived shortcomings. That is, rebel-induced dissonance must be accompanied by perceived self-efficacy (i.e., the belief that one is capable of change). Thus, rather than avoiding presenting a threat to others' moral self-views by, for example, using morally neutral justifications, we proposed that moral rebels should harness that threat, provided they talk about change using words of encouragement that helps inspire perceived self-efficacy in others.

To that end, we recommended that moral rebels should ensure that observers can preserve their belief in being a good person, despite their moral hiccups, and not discourage them in their capabilities needed for self-improvement. They should make those observers become more aware that their habitual choices incidentally produce harmful outcomes, and avoid suggesting that morally suboptimal actions are the result of having bad intentions, for instance through signaling self-compassion. Second, moral rebels could inspire self-efficacy by focusing on the fact that one's abilities can be developed in the pursuit of self-improvement and are not fixed traits that render one either born to succeed or doomed to fail. Finally, it may be more fruitful to focus on the “baby steps” it takes to reach a higher self-defining goal by promoting maximal moral standards (e.g., praising the incremental changes to observers' behaviors), rather than promoting minimal moral standards (e.g., a requirement for observers to make radical lifestyle changes to gain any moral cache). In sum, these strategies are focused on avoiding observers lapsing into a debilitating state of harsh self-criticism and/or feeling overwhelmed by the required change, but instead making them believe they too have the capabilities required for self-improvement.