Undrey/Shutterstock.com

Think Twice before Shouting Your Virtues Online – Moral Grandstanding Is Toxic

People who act holier than thou aren't necessarily better than the rest of us. In fact, their moral grandstanding may be driving society apart.

In an era of bitter partisanship, political infighting and ostracization of those with unpopular views, Americans actually agree on one thing: 85% say political discourse has gotten worse over the last several years, according to Pew Research.

The polarization plays out everywhere in society, from private holiday gatherings to very public conversations on social media, where debate is particularly toxic and aggressive.

For psychologists like myself, who study human behavior, this widespread nastiness is both a social problem and a research opportunity. My colleagues and I have zeroed in on one specific aspect that might help explain America’s dysfunctional discourse: moral grandstanding.

Moral grandstanding

The term may be unfamiliar, but most people have experienced moral grandstanding.

Examples of moral grandstanding include when a friend makes grand and extreme proclamations on Twitter about their deepest held values regarding climate change, for instance, and when a campaigning politician makes bold – but clearly untrue – ideological claims about immigration.

Moral grandstanders shout their values. They may not live them. www.shutterstock.com

Philosophers coined the phrase to describe the abuse of so-called “moral talk” – an umbrella term encompassing all conversations humans have about our politics, beliefs, values and morals.

Usually, people engage in moral talk to learn from, connect with or persuade someone else. They might say of their decision not to eat any animal products, for example, “I am vegan for environmental and animal rights reasons.”

Moral grandstanding occurs when people use moral talk, instead, to promote themselves or seek status. So a moral grandstander might say, “I am vegan because it is the only moral decision. If you care about the planet, you can’t eat animal products.”

For moral grandstanders, conversation is a means to an end – not a free exchange of ideas.

A desire for respect from our peers is normal in humans, as are the desires for safety, love and belonging. Social scientists have traced the evolutionary origins of status seeking to prehistoric times.

Moral grandstanding, however, is a special kind of status seeking. It implies that someone is using conversations about important or controversial topics solely to get attention or impress others.

Severed ties and broken relationships

Just because someone touts their virtues – whether on Twitter or in conversation – does not mean they are morally superior to everyone else.

In a recently published study conducted with a team of other psychologists and philosophers, we asked 6,000 Americans a series of questions about who and why they share their deepest moral and political beliefs with. People who reported sharing beliefs to gain respect, admiration or status were identified as grandstanders.

Almost everyone indicated they had some history of grandstanding, but only a few – 2% to 5% – indicated they primarily used their moral talk to promote themselves.

We found that moral grandstanders were more likely to experience discord in their personal lives. People who reported grandstanding more often also reported more experiences arguing with loved ones and severing ties with friends or family members over political or moral disagreements.

People who indicated using their deepest held beliefs to boost their own status in real life also reported more toxic social media behaviors, picking fights over politics on Facebook, for example, and berating strangers on Twitter for having the “wrong” opinions.

Philosophical accounts of grandstanding strongly suggest that moral grandstanders behave less morally than other people in other ways, too. They are more likely to rudely call others out for not being virtuous enough, systematically disparage entire groups of people and hijack important conversations to serve their own purposes.

When the natural human desire for respect leads people to seek status in situations when they would be better served by listening, it seems, this behavior can drive friends, family and communities apart.

Other reasons for discord

The rise of moral grandstanding isn’t the only reason discourse in the United States has taken a turn for the worse.

Moral talk can be abused. www.shutterstock.com

Politics have grown extraordinarily polarized, which is both a cause and effect of social polarization. Politically active people feel more animosity and less trust toward “the other side” than they have in generations.

Social media itself seems to accelerate conflict, creating echo chambers of likeminded people that are galvanized against others and driving cycles of outrage that quickly escalate and stifle public participation in important conversations.

So ending moral grandstanding won’t magically fix the public debate in the United States. But tamping it down would lead the country in a more productive direction.

How to handle moral grandstanding

Consider assessing your own conversation style, reflecting about what you say to others and why. When you enter into contentious territory with someone who differs in opinion, ask whether you’re doing so because you’re genuinely interested in communicating and connecting with your fellow human – or are you just trying to score points?

Thinking honestly about your engagement on social media – ground zero for moral grandstanding – is particularly important.

Do you post controversial material just for likes and retweets? Do you share social media posts of people you disagree with just to publicly mock them? Do you find yourself trying to one-up the good deeds of someone else to make yourself look good to people whose respect you crave?

If so, then you may be a moral grandstander.

If not, you can still fight moral grandstanding by recognizing and dissuading these behaviors in others. Given that moral grandstanders crave status, respect and esteem from others, depriving them of the attention they seek is probably the best deterrent.

The Conversation

This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.