Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

Are You a Moral Grandstander?

Moral grandstanding may be a major source of conflict in the world today.

Scientific American

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

two people shouting at each other with megaphones

Photo by We Are/Getty Images

Do you strongly agree with the following statements?

  • When I share my moral/political beliefs, I do so to show people who disagree with me that I am better than them.
  • I share my moral/political beliefs to make people who disagree with me feel bad.
  • When I share my moral/political beliefs, I do so in the hopes that people different than me will feel ashamed of their beliefs.

If so, then you may be a card-carrying moral grandstander. Of course it's wonderful to have a social cause that you believe in genuinely, and which you want to share with the world to make it a better place. But moral grandstanding comes from a different place.

First defined and delineated in the moral philosophy literature, moral grandstanding can be defined as "the use and abuse of moral talk to seek status, to promote oneself, or to boost your own brand."A moral grandstander is therefore a person who frequently uses public discussion of morality and politics to impress others with their moral qualities. Crucially, these individuals are primarily motivated by the desire to enhance their own status or ranking among their peers.

Let's face it: Moral grandstanding seems to be everywhere these days. As clinical psychologist Joshua Grubbs notes, "Perhaps, just perhaps, part of the reason so many of us are so awful to each other so much of the time on here is related to a desire to show off to likeminded others. In essence, sometimes we behave poorly in an effort to gain the respect and esteem of folks like us."

Interested in scientifically investigating this phenomenon, Grubbs teamed up with the philosophers who first defined moral grandstanding—Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke—as well as the psychologists A. Shanti James and W. Keith Campbell. Across 6 studies (involving 2 pre-registrations involving nationally representative samples), 2 longitudinal designs, and over 6,000 participants, these are their core findings:

  1. Moral grandstanders (those scoring high on the moral grandstanding survey) tend to also score high in narcissistic characteristics and also tend to report status-seeking as their fundamental social motive.
  2. There is no relationship between moral grandstanding and political affiliation. However there is a link between moral grandstanding and political polarization: people on the far left and far right are both more likely to score higher in moral grandstanding characteristics than those who are more moderate democrats and republicans.
  3. Moral grandstanders are more likely to report greater moral and political conflict in their daily lives (e.g., "I lost friends because of my political/moral beliefs") and they report getting into more fights with others on social media because of their political or moral beliefs. This correlation was found even after controlling for other personality traits, and continued over the course of a one-month longitudinal study.
  4. Grandstanders were more likely to report antagonistic behavior over time, such as attacking others online, or trying to publicly shame someone online because they held a different moral or political belief.

Of course, moral grandstanding is not the only factor predicting public conflict, and not every instance of public moral or political sharing is motivated by narcissistic motives. As Grubbs notes, a real difficulty in understanding socially toxic behaviors "is that oftentimes, the same behavior (by appearance) may be driven by vastly different motives, and intent matters quite a bit in interpreting those behaviors."

Nevertheless, since we are such a social species, the human need for social status is very pervasive, and often our attempts at sharing our moral and political beliefs on public social media platforms involve a mix of genuine motives with social status motives. As one team of psychologists put it, yes, you probably are "virtue signaling" (a closely related concept to moral grandstanding), but that doesn't mean that your outrage is necessarily inauthentic. It just means that we often have a subconscious desire to signal our virtue, which when not checked, can spiral out of control and cause us to denigrate or be mean to others in order to satisfy that desire. When the need for status predominates, we may even lose touch with what we truly believe, or even what is actually the truth.

To be sure, the human drive for social status can be a great driver of growth and goodness in the world. It really depends on whether one has a healthy regulation of this fundamental human need. Interestingly enough, Grubbs and his colleagues found that moral grandstanding motivations are reminiscent of the two different routes to social status found in the psychological literature: dominance and prestige. The dominance pathway to status is paved with hubris, deceit, and aggression, whereas the prestigious pathway to status is paved with pride for one's authentic accomplishments, and the desire for personal growth and connection with others.

Likewise, moral grandstanding can be fueled by either:

  • The need to seek social status by dominating others ("When I share my moral/political beliefs, I do so to show people who disagree with me that I am better than them")
  • The need to seek status through being a knowledgeable and virtuous example ("I want to be on the right side of history about moral/political issues", "If I don't share my views, others will be less likely to learn the truth about moral/political matters", "I often share my moral/political beliefs in the hope of inspiring people to be more passionate about their beliefs.")

The researchers found that the dominance path to social status was much more strongly linked to antagonistic behaviors and conflict in everyday life compared to the more authentic/prestigious route to social status. Maybe so much of the strife seen on social media could be prevented if before hitting "Tweet", we asked ourselves: "Do I truly believe in the importance of this cause/idea/belief or am I mainly just saying this to gain status from my peers and take down those who disagree?"

Of course, gaining social status from saying what one truly believes is a rewarding outcome, but when advancing your brand becomes the sole motivating force behind all of your political and moral pronouncements, that might not be the best route to getting at the real truth about what will actually help advance an important cause, not to mention your own well-being and happiness.

Hopefully more research along these lines will help advance our understanding of this important individual differences variable and how this factor is currently playing out in this divided moral and political landscape.

Note: I've been wondering about the relationship between moral grandstanding and moral righteousness. I think the topic of moral righteousness has not received the research attention it deserves, and I look forward to further work teasing out the fine distinctions between moral grandstanding, moral righteousness, virtue signaling, and other related concepts.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Scientific American

This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published October 28, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

Did you enjoy this Scientific American article?

Get our FREE daily newsletter