Should I? How Appeals to Moral Responsibility Affect Individual-Level Behavioral Change

We are in an era where humanity is confronted with significant challenges such as climate change, social inequality, and mass migration movements. Given that these issues are profoundly linked to human activities, long-term sustainable solutions can only be achieved through people’s commitment to behavioral change.

Previous research established that morality can be a strong motivation for behavior regulation (Ellemers & Van Den Bos, 2012). Since people are driven to be moral and want to be seen as moral by others, appealing to their moral responsibilities (e.g., environmentally friendly behaviors) may enhance people’s willingness to align their actions with moral norms and values (Van Nunspeet & Ellemers, 2023). However, moral appeals may also lead to backlash and have counterproductive effects when these are perceived as moral criticism (Rösler et al., 2021).

This PhD project is therefore focused on investigating the potential (counter)productive effects of moral appeals, and developing effective ways to appeal to moral responsibilities without triggering defensive reactions. Importantly, by employing a multi-method approach that involves behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging techniques, the project will examine the underlying neurocognitive and psychophysiological mechanisms associated with appeals to people’s moral responsibility. Finally, the project aims to design a comprehensive intervention strategy that can lead to behavior regulation through a change in mindset. This intervention strategy will be tested in the field to determine if the effects observed in a laboratory setting hold true in a real-world social context (e.g., established in collaboration with ARTIS-Planetarium). The findings of this PhD will contribute to the development of promising strategies to turn the vicious cycle of evading responsibility into a virtuous cycle of taking responsibility.



Involved researcher


This study is part of the Sustainable Cooperation - Roadmaps to Resilient Societies research programme (SCOOP). The SCOOP programme was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) in the context of its 2017 Gravity Programme.