Leaders who use a moral argument, rather than a pragmatic one, as the basis for a position may be judged harshly if they flipflop later, a new study found.
The leaders are perceived as hypocrites, less effective, and less worthy of future support, according to the study published by the American Psychological Association.
“Leaders may choose to take moral stances, believing that this will improve audiences’ perceptions. And it does, initially,” said the study’s lead author, Tamar Kreps, of the University of Utah. “But all people, even leaders, have to change their minds sometimes.”
According to the research, “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,” Kreps said. “Due to this perception of hypocrisy, they are also seen as less effective and less worthy of support.”
Researchers conducted a series of 15 experiments online involving more than 5,500 participants from the United States, ranging in age from 18 to 77. Participants learned about political or business leaders who had changed their opinion on an issue. Some participants were told that the leaders’ initial positions were based on a moral stance. Others were told the position was based on a pragmatic argument, such as being good for the economy.
Participants rated the leader who changed his or her mind 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.
Researchers were surprised at how difficult it was to eliminate the effect, Kreps said.
The findings suggest that people think that breaking moral commitments is not only difficult, but also wrong, Kreps said.
“All in all, these results paint a glum picture for initially moral leaders,” she said. “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.”
The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.