Appeals to Moral Responsibility: Preventing negative effects of external pressures and enhancing intrinsic motivation for behavioural change

We live in turbulent times, with changing relations in communities and between the public, institutions, and governmental systems, as well as global threats due to climate change. This challenges people to adjust their behaviour, and requires the realization of sustainable cooperation to form resilient societies.

Societal resilience depends among others on the ability of individuals, communities, and institutions to flexibly adapt behaviours and (organizational) strategies to emerging insights and changing environmental, social, or economic circumstances. The standard approach to make these insights available is through cognitive knowledge transfer. Importantly, however, informational messages focusing on negative societal outcomes of individual behaviours—thereby appealing to people’s responsibilities—may carry moral overtones: Conveying information about disadvantages of current practices and sharing insights about possible improvements can implicitly convey moral critique, as these indicate that people’s current habits and behaviours are no longer morally acceptable. The effectiveness of such informational messages therefore depends not only on the quality of the information transfer or the reliability of the source, but also on how people respond to—and whether or how they can cope with—moral critique and appeals invoking their moral responsibility to realize particular societal outcomes.
Many social behaviours can become moralized; they gain moral connotations when, for instance, their negative effects on others become increasingly clear—violating the moral principle of not doing harm (Rozin, 1999). Current examples of moralization pertain to social behaviours related to sustainability and environmental actions, diversity and inclusion, and social safety. In the current projects, we therefore focus on informational messages with moral appeals addressing negative societal outcomes of individual behaviours related to these topics. These are typically used to signal the urgency of behavioural change by portraying the undesirable, or more generally devastating, consequences of past and current developments. Concrete examples are the effects of (implicit) bias, prejudice or (benevolent) sexism on the equal treatment of members from different social groups, the effects of the abuse of power for socially safe (working or training) environments, and the effects of unsustainable consumption patterns on human’s ecological footprint and climate change.

Within this overarching theme, we are looking for candidates for three separate, yet related, PhD projects. Each project addresses fundamental scientific research to examine different underlying mechanisms affecting people’s responses to moral appeals for behavioural change—to address the challenges we are facing with regard to social change and sustainability goals—with the aim of facilitating the development of evidence-based interventions for a resilient society.