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date: 24 May 2017

Appeals to Morality in Health and Risk Messaging

Summary and Keywords

Many health- and risk-related behaviors have moral implications. Most obvious are altruistic behaviors like blood donation. However, issues related to promoting the wellbeing of friends and family members, such as being sure that they don’t drive drunk, and the generalized obligations that attend environmentally relevant behaviors like participating in recycling programs, also tap into moral concerns. For promoting such issues, moral appeals may be appropriate. Moral appeals are messages that acknowledge individuals’ evaluative beliefs about universal rights and wrongs. Appeals to morality produce a sense of obligation and responsibility because morals are viewed as self-evident facts.

Three explanations for why people engage in moral behavior are discernible in current scholarship, each with implications for structuring moral appeals: activation of social expectations, activation of personal norms, and arousal of emotion. The first of these is based on the subjective expected utility tradition. From this perspective, the key to successfully encouraging morally relevant behavior is maximizing benefits and minimizing costs. Because prosocial behaviors are enforced by social sanctions, many of these costs and benefits are socially bestowed. Thus, altruism at its core is hedonism. Theories that focus on activation of personal norms, in contrast, contend that people sometimes make decisions to donate blood, demonstrate for healthcare reform, recycle, and so on simply because they view it as their duty and responsibility to do so. When people realize in a concrete situation that their actions have consequences for the welfare of others, and that they are personally responsible for those outcomes, personal norms for the specific case are generated from internalized moral values. In this view, a central concern with moral appeals is ensuring that messages are aligned with internalized norms and that relevance and personal responsibilities are clearly communicated. Finally, theories of emotional arousal stress that although cognitive appraisals of personal and social norms are necessary, they are insufficient to incite people to selfless behavior. Rather, people engage in helping or altruistic behavior because moral appeals are emotionally arousing. Emotions associated with such appeals include empathic concern and guilt. Guilt appeals especially have been found to be as effective in eliciting compliance when behaviors have moral significance as other popular compliance-gaining strategies. Positive emphasis on responsibility and induction of hypocrisy are also techniques that rely on the appeal to moral beliefs.

Keywords: morals, moral appeals, guilt appeals, altruism, pro-social behavior, empathy, theory of planned behavior, norm activation model, hypocrisy induction

Certain health- and risk-related issues inevitably involve moral implications. Most obvious perhaps are altruistic behaviors such as blood, organ, and tissue donation. However, a number of other behaviors can be considered as tapping into moral concerns, for example, issues related to the wellbeing of family members like secondhand smoke, childhood obesity, use of seatbelts, and alcohol abuse. Even generalized obligations characteristic of environmentally relevant behaviors such as purchasing unleaded gasoline, participating in recycling programs, and burning yard waste can be classified as belonging to the domain of moral behavior. For such issues, moral appeals may be used to encourage specific actions that have been identified as promoting health and lowering risk (Guttman, 2001).

Defining Morals

By definition, moral appeals are messages that acknowledge individuals’ evaluative beliefs about universal rights and wrongs. Appeals to morals produce a sense of obligation and responsibility because morals are viewed as unvarying truths, self-evident facts (Bloom & Levitan, 2011). Thus, in contrast to personal preferences or conventions, morals not only guide individuals’ own behavior but are also used as standards to determine how others ought to behave (Moses & Gonzales, 2015). Moral appeals tell the targets of the communication that they have a moral obligation to engage in the recommended action. In interpersonal compliance-gaining literature, moral appeals fall under the larger category of techniques that activate general commitments (i.e., commitments in which the concept of oughtness is at the forefront; Marwell & Schmitt, 1967). In such situations, appeals to morality are most often used when the other party is able to act but unwilling to do so, and the requester has few alternatives. They are often the last resort of the low-power party.

Morals can be distinguished from several similar and overlapping terms that are frequently used in health and risk communication. Prosocial behavior refers to individual actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself. It includes acts like helping others, sharing, cooperating, and donating (Renner, Lindenmeier, Tscheulin, & Drevs, 2013). It is therefore a subset of the larger category of morality, which additionally includes responsibilities related to the self alone. The term helping behavior is often used as a synonym for prosocial behavior, with some implication of an interpersonal context. Altruism is typically considered to be a subset of prosocial behaviors in which not only does the individual act for the benefit of others, but does so with no expectation of personal gain (Schwartz, 1977). Although altruism is clearly morally significant behavior, it is, again, just one aspect of the larger category of morality. Values are personal beliefs and evaluations. The term may describe behaviors that have a moral component, but may also be applied to personal preference. Thus, values are not necessarily generalizable from the individual to the larger population. Placing a value on punctuality, for instance, is qualitatively different than morals related to equal treatment of members of marginalized groups. Morals, thus, may be considered to be a particular type of value. Ethics, often called moral philosophy, refers to the ability to think critically about moral values and align one’s behavior accordingly (Churchill, 1999). Ethics entail action. Finally, norms are understandings of what should or should not be done by particular types of actors in given circumstances (Schwartz, 1977). Because much literature on appeals to morality does not explicitly use the term morals, but may refer to some of these subsets of moral behavior—most often altruism, prosocial behavior, and helping behavior—these latter terms will at times be used in this article to signify the current state of knowledge regarding certain types of morals, with the understanding that they fall within the larger category of morally relevant issues.

In Western psychological scholarship, morals have primarily been associated with questions of justice and equity. Kohlberg’s (1981) influential theory of moral development proposed that an internalized sense of justice develops incrementally as children progress from childhood to adulthood. Gradually, individuals learn how to transcend their own perspectives and take on the perspectives of others. Through this building capacity for empathy, they become able to discern why an action, practice, or social convention is fair or unfair. By adulthood, transgression of justice and fairness principles typically elicits anger on the part of the observer and guilt on the part of the actor. Upholding of the same principles produces gratitude and admiration. Another pillar of morality in Western thought is that of caring or concern for the welfare of others (Gilligan, 1989). When people see suffering in others, they are disturbed and have the potential to feel the emotion of compassion. As with justice, caring is viewed in Western contexts as a central criterion for measuring moral success and failure. Issues that fall outside the realm of justice and caring are most often considered social conventions rather than matters of morality.

The moral systems of justice and caring are predicated on the ontological assumption that individuals are autonomous, free beings, and that it is important to maximize their freedom to exercise their own choices (Haidt, 2001). Global studies of morality, however, indicate the existence of two other widespread moral domains, based on different ontological presuppositions (Schweder, 1990). In many non-Western societies, an ethic of community is central to morality. The world is seen as a collection of families, tribes, or other groups rather than individuals. These larger structures give life meaning and purpose. Therefore, core moral beliefs in such societies have to do with loyalty, trust, and cooperation, as well as respect, duty, wisdom, and obedience. A final moral domain, also evident in many non-Western societies, is based on the assumption that God or gods exist, and that each soul is a bit or a reflection of God. In this moral domain, if bodies are temples within which the divine is contained, it is important for people to control themselves and avoid impurity. Accordingly, key moral regulations condemn passions like lust, greed, and gluttony and elevate chasteness, piety, and cleanliness. Cultures vary in the degree to which they value and inculcate morals from each of these moral domains, and it is likely that all cultures incorporate at least some moral precepts from all of them. Because research and theorizing in Western contexts mainly addresses the individually oriented mode of moral behavior—specifically prosocial/helping behavior and altruism—this article will focus on that aspect of moral appeals. However, it is important to note that a rich and diverse array of moral systems exists outside this characteristically Western domain.

Moral Behavior as an Exercise in Subjective Expected Utility

Three discrete explanations for why people engage in moral behavior are discernible in current scholarship, each with implications for moral appeals: social expectations approaches, altruistic explanations, and theories centered on the arousal of emotion (Schwartz & Howard, 1981). Early scholarship on the motivation and process of moral behavior is anchored in a subjective expected utility perspective, which holds that people are motivated by the desire to maximize private utility. They make decisions about moral actions on the basis of a thorough comparison of the costs versus benefits, many of which are related to expectations in their social worlds (Thogersen, 1996). Sanctions and rewards may be mild, and may even be perceived as unlikely, but they are ultimately the driver behind moral behavior. Depending on the outcome of their internal calculations, people decide to engage or not engage in a specific moral behavior. Although some rewards may be material, people have been socialized to experience altruistic activity as self-gratifying, because they can anticipate approval for this type of behavior from significant others in their lives (Baumann et al., 1981). They can also expect loss of social approval if it is known that they engaged in a morally repugnant action, or did not engage in a morally good one when they had the opportunity.

Ideally, then, moral behavior can be regulated by manipulation of rewards and punishments (Baumann, Cialdini, & Kenrick, 1981). Health communication campaigns often remind target audience members of social expectations about what it means to be a responsible spouse, parent, or friend (Guttman, 2001). Responsible parents get their children immunized and buckle them into the backseat of their cars, talk to them about bullying, and are alert to kids’ possible drug-related or eating disorder activities. Responsible friends don’t let their friends drive drunk and urge them not to do meth. Responsible sexual partners use condoms and talk to their significant others about their HIV status. Such health messages about responsible behaviors often insinuate moral indignation if the recommended behaviors are not adopted (Guttman, 2001). Donation appeals in particular may present threats to viewers’ or readers’ face (Pennock-Speck & del Saz-Rubio, 2013), implying that they may pay social costs if they do not comply. Viewers who accept these definitions of what makes a truly good person must strategize how to preserve the approval of socially significant others. One option for doing that is to comply with the espoused behavior.

A ready exemplar of a theory within the social expectations approach is available in Ajzen’s theory of planned behavior (TPB; Ajzen, 1991). The TPB is probably the most frequently applied subjective expected utility theory, and the one with the most pronounced role for social norms. As its name implies, TPB is a cognitive theory. Although it does not deny the presence of emotions, they are assumed to be subservient to cognitions when people make behavioral choices, whether about helping or other types of behaviors. TPB claims that intention to perform a particular behavior is predicted by three types of cognitions: the individual’s attitudes toward the behavior, her expectation of what other people will think if she engages in the behavior (subjective or social norms), and her perception of whether she can actually enact the behavior in question (perceived behavioral control). Each of these variables is constituted by a combination of many separate beliefs, multiplied by the weight of the importance of each one to the individual.

For example, a university student who contemplates whether to stop and assist a stranded motorist on the way to class may have behavioral beliefs about whether it is safe for her as a woman to stop to help a stranger, whether all strangers on highways are likely to have cell phones to call for help and therefore need no assistance, whether stopping to help strangers is something one is morally obligated to do, and so on. These combine to form her attitude. When it comes to subjective norms, she may weigh the censure she will receive from her instructor if she is late, the appreciation she will accrue from the other driver, and the incremental enhancement or damage to her reputation if friends know she stopped (or did not stop) to help, among other things. Finally, she is likely to also assess her ability to help. Does she know enough about cars to give advice? Did she remember to put jumper cables in her trunk? And so on. The combination of her attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control predicts her intention to stop and help, which then predicts her behavior. The theory does not distinguish between moral beliefs and other behavioral beliefs; the same punishment-reward assessment is activated regardless of the moral or amoral nature of the beliefs in question.

Personal Norms as a Motivator of Moral Behavior

Although it is clear that humans often weigh costs and benefits before deciding how to act, thoroughly weighing the pros and cons of acting morally would not be seen by most people as ideal (Thogersen, 1996). In such situations, people expect that the principal deciding factor should be the relative moral value of the alternatives, aside from costs and benefits to self. The second explanation for moral behavior, therefore, contends that although people often do make decisions based on cost-benefit analysis, they sometimes donate blood, demonstrate for healthcare reform, recycle, and so on simply because they view it as their duty and responsibility to do so. In other words, they want to do what is right.

An exemplar of this theoretical perspective is Schwartz’s norm-activation model (NAM) of altruism (Schwartz & Howard, 1981). Like the TPB, the NAM is cognition-based. However, the NAM introduces the concept of personal norms as the link between general internalized moral values and specific self-expectations about behavior in concrete situations. According to the theory, when choice presents itself to a person, the individual scans the implications of various potential actions for relevant internalized values. Values are activated if the actor (a) realizes that potential actions have consequences for the welfare of others and (b) recognizes that he is personally responsible for those outcomes. This results in the generation of personal norms, which are feelings of moral obligation to perform or refrain from performing specific actions in a particular situation. The more central to the individual’s identity the personal norms are implicated by the action, the stronger the attendant emotional arousal (e.g., anticipated self-satisfaction or dissatisfaction). Unlike social norms in TPB, which are tied to the approval or disapproval of others and rely on sanctions from the social group for their power, personal norms are considered to be internalized, not dependent on external reinforcement or sanction. If enacting the personal norm appears too costly or uncomfortable, the individual searches for defenses to rationalize not performing the behavior. He may, for instance, minimize in his mind either the consequences of the actions or downplay his own ability to actually engage in the behavior in question. If he succeeds in constructing an effective defense against his personal norms, the behavior is not performed. The more salient the consequences for others and the personal responsibility are made, however, the more difficult it is for the person to rationalize away his moral obligation. If he cannot produce adequate rationalization, he will act in accordance with personal norms.

Evidence that moral behavior is provoked by activation of personal norms exists regarding a variety of behaviors like volunteering to donate bone marrow, pledging to take university class notes for army reservists, donating blood, volunteering to tutor blind children, and volunteering time to assist elderly welfare recipients (Schwartz & Howard, 1981).

Emotional Arousal as a Motivator of Moral Behavior

Both of these approaches to moral decision-making belong to the rationalist model that sees moral reasoning causing moral judgment, which leads to intention and then behavior (Rest, 1986). More recently, the social intuitionist perspective suggests that people grasp moral truths not by a process of rational thought, but by a process more akin to perception, in which they simply see without argument what must be true. Moral reasoning is a post hoc explanation generated after an intuitive judgment has been reached (Haidt, 2001). Theories associating emotion with helping and altruism stress that although cognitive appraisals of self-accountability are necessary, they are insufficient to motivate people to selfless behavior. Emotions, in contrast, have impact over and above the logical thoughts that accompany them (Passyn & Sujan, 2006). People engage in helping or altruistic behavior because feelings of moral obligation are emotionally arousing. Emotions most frequently associated with moral appeals are anticipatory pride, anticipatory guilt, shame, personal distress, and empathetic concern (Schwartz & Howard, 1981).

A key distinction among emotions with reference to persuasion is their respective ability to produce constructive action. Emotions that make people feel responsible are said to elicit approach actions and behaviors. Emotions that focus on the self do not make people feel accountable and generate avoidance of actions (Passyn & Sujan, 2006). One such contrasting set of emotions involves perceptions of the need or suffering of others. The first emotion, empathic concern, is characterized by feelings of compassion, soft-heartedness, and tenderness. It derives from the capacity to view events from the perspectives of others, especially those to whom one feels attachment, friendship, or kinship (Basil, Ridgway, & Basil, 2008). Feelings of empathic concern can be relieved by actively intervening to reduce the suffering of the other. Alternatively, sometimes seeing others in pain induces not empathy, but personal discomfort in which an individual attends only to her own unpleasant state. Because this second emotion is inwardly directed, the individual is unable to take the perspective of the other person. Instead, she is likely to seek relief from her own uncomfortable feelings by finding a way to divert her attention from the plight of the sufferer. That is, rather than address the original cause of the emotion, the individual focuses attention on removing the disagreeable emotion itself (Batson, O’Quin, Fultz, Vanderplas, & Isen, 1983).

Because empathy involves viewing another person’s situation from that person’s perspective, it can be cultivated by both dramatizing the distressing elements of a sufferer’s position and suggesting similarities between the sufferer and the target audience. Empathy has been shown to have some association with volitional versus non-volitional causes of the recipient’s circumstances (Weiner, 1993). Victims who are portrayed as blameless rather than culpable for their condition elicit higher levels of empathy, higher motivation for helping behavior, and more positive perceptions of the sponsoring organization (Shanahan, Hopkins, Carlson, & Raymond, 2013).

A second set of emotions related to moral behavior includes guilt and shame. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, guilt and shame are mostly conceived of as distinct emotions with widely divergent psychological consequences (Boudewyns, Turner, & Paquin, 2013). Guilt is viewed in most modern theories as an innate emotion that provides information about one’s own behavior and motivates one to appropriate action (Kugler & Jones, 1992). Guilt arises when people realize that their behavior has caused a violation of the moral order for which they take responsibility. It is an unpleasant emotional state characterized by remorse for one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions (Boudewyns et al., 2013). People who feel guilty may think about making amends or apologizing, wish they had acted differently, or want to undo what has already been done (Burnett & Lunsford, 1994). That is, they look for ways to uphold the moral system. Guilt is based in the capacity to feel or anticipate the suffering of others, and in the belief that one should to some extent assume responsibility for that suffering. In a word, it is connected to empathy.

In contrast, shame has to do with a global evaluation of personal failure (Boudewyns et al., 2013). Shame produces feelings like embarrassment, inadequacy, and self-contempt. People in the throes of shame often feel powerless to make positive change, and their focus on themselves diminishes their ability to feel empathy. As a result, they may get angry at others in a type of scapegoating that allows them to externalize blame for their perceived worthlessness. With guilt, people regret their actions; with shame, people regret who they are. Shame and guilt can occur together. It should be noted that a few scholars argue for a potential positive role for shame in moral behavior (Teroni & Bruun, 2011). Guilt, in this view, only treats the symptoms of moral defects. Shame sheds light on the faults in one’s character that dispose one to perform the misdeeds. Guilt results from private recognition that one has violated a personal standard; shame arises from public observation of a transgression or failure.

Types of Moral Appeals

Discussions of moral appeals in communication literature can be traced to Marwell and Schmitts’s (1967) seminal article on compliance-gaining strategies. The authors inductively derived clusters of compliance-gaining techniques, among which moral appeals were categorized together with urging recipients that they will feel good about themselves if they comply and bad about themselves if they do not. The term moral appeals, however, is rarely used, and the parameters around this type of messaging remain undefined. Instead, appeals to morality constitute a diverse collection of techniques and theories, often applied to other types of persuasive messages as well. Many persuasive messages that seek to promote altruism or helping behaviors rely on techniques that are used for a range of other purposes, such as warmth appeals, humor, and fear appeals. Indeed, classic studies of the effectiveness of compliance-gaining techniques like foot-in-the-door and door-in-the-face investigated prosocial behavior (Cialdini et al., 1975; Freedman & Fraser, 1966). This article addresses three commonly used techniques that specifically tap into moral motivations and/or emotions: positive appeals to responsibility, guilt appeals, and hypocrisy induction. There is overlap in the techniques; appeals to personal responsibility may elicit guilt, as may hypocrisy induction. By far, the largest corpus of literature is available about guilt appeals.

Positive Appeals to Responsibility. Morals are relatively impervious to persuasion (Bloom & Levitan, 2011). Interactions with people who disagree with one’s morals tend to lead to tension and defensiveness. This general tendency holds across religions, cultures, and political ideologies. Thus, appeals to morality aim to tap into preexisting moral beliefs in the audience. Most commonly, health messages urge people to take responsibility for promoting the welfare of others (Guttman, 2001). Three types of obligation have been identified by health communication ethicists, all of which fall clearly within the moral domain of caring and kindness: taking care of one’s own health not only for one’s own sake, but also for the sake of those one is close to; taking care of others’ health; and avoiding becoming a burden on society at large by not engaging in risky behaviors. Health campaigns are replete with this type of message. For example, a depression awareness campaign of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health urged that “People may need help to get help” (Guttman, 2001). An Australian antilitter campaign proclaimed “Do the right thing!” with fast-paced visuals of rollerbladers making bank shots while tossing wads of paper into trashcans (Do the Right Thing, 2008). The awareness of personal obligation, presented in a warm, positive manner, can contribute to strong, positive identity, which may translate into prosocial behavior.

Pairing personal responsibility with specific actions is key to this kind of message. This is understood to engender self-efficacy, or the confidence that one has the ability to perform the recommended behavior (Basil et al., 2008). It has been hypothesized that personal responsibility messages must be accompanied by a sense of self-efficacy, otherwise people who have been made aware that they are not meeting the moral responsibilities may make efforts to remove their guilt or dissonance, rather than take steps to address the issue at hand (Witte, 1992). Self-efficacy is often conceptualized as specific, small steps such as calling to get more information, talking to a friend about smoking, measuring portions on a child’s plate, and so on (Nabi, 2015).

Guilt Appeals. Among techniques for appealing to morality, guilt appeals have received the most attention. Although popular usage is inclined to label guilt as a strictly negative emotion, guilt is often purposefully elicited to drive target audience members to morally positive actions. Social marketing appeals often use guilt to stress how a behavior contravenes personal or social norms and/or how it could harm relevant others. As per the negative state relief model, guilt is understood to increase the probability of compliance by creating a noxious internal state from which the individual seeks respite (Boster et al., 1999). This is often accomplished in the problem phase of an ad when sad music, multi-scene montages, vivid case stories, and serious-sounding voiceover narrations emphasize the severity of victims’ plights (Pennock-Speck & del Saz-Rubio, 2013).

Given that guilt is focused on behavior rather than a global condemnation of the self, one ready means for achieving relief is to engage in whatever healthy behavior is being promulgated.

Scholars differentiate between reactive guilt, anticipated guilt, and existential guilt (Antonetti, Baines, & Walker, 2015). Reactive, or consequential, guilt is a retrospective regret of previous behavior. Anticipated guilt is guilt that one expects to experience if a specific course of action is selected (Renner et al., 2013). Because people know guilt to be unpleasant, they can be motivated to choose behaviors that they believe will minimize their likelihood of guilt in the future. To experience anticipated guilt, people must first believe that the recommendations of the message will be efficacious, and second, believe that they have the ability to perform the recommended action (Lindsey, 2005). If they do not believe they have at least some degree of control over the outcome, they are less likely to be concerned about feeling guilty. Many health messages use anticipated guilt to gain people’s compliance in promoting the welfare of others. Existential guilt occurs when individuals become broadly aware of differences between their own level of wellbeing and that of others. The guilt in broad-based charity appeals is often of this existential sort, aimed at making people aware that they are more fortunate than many people in their society (Pennock-Speck & del Saz-Rubio, 2013).

Studies of the persuasive power of guilt appeals have long demonstrated that they work. The effect of guilt appeals is as strong or stronger than meta-analytic estimates of the effects of other common compliance-gaining techniques, including foot-in-the-door, door-in-the-face, disrupt-then-reframe, and low-balling (O’Keefe, 2000). Even subliminally primed guilt has been shown to increase helping behavior, although participants did not report a conscious difference in their affective state (Zemack-Rugar, Bettman, & Fitzsimons, 2007). The parameters within which guilt appeals are optimally persuasive are still being debated. The persuasive effects for guilt have long been characterized as an inverted-U relationship (Antonetti et al., 2015; O’Keefe, 2000). Moderate guilt has been understood to work best. It has been suggested that this is because high levels of guilt are associated with high levels of anger, which decrease attitude change (Nabi, 2015). It may also be that some strong guilt appeals inadvertently elicit shame rather than guilt (Boudewyns et al., 2013). Shame is associated with defensive reactions like anger, lashing out, and blaming others.

Other possible moderators of the effects of guilt appeals include issue proximity, self-efficacy, message framing, congruence of moral norms, and perceived manipulative intent. For example, guilt as a compliance-gaining technique has been viewed as likely to be most effective within the context of strong relational ties (Doosje, Branscombe, Spears, & Manstead, 2006). By implication, the persuasive power of guilt could be best harnessed in interpersonal aspects of a health behavior like protecting loved ones from a health risk. Also, guilt elicitation is clearly most effective if the moral norms appealed to in the persuasive message are congruent with the personal norms of audience members (Turner & Underhill, 2012). Cultural differences in moral domains become critical when the effectiveness of an appeal depends on demonstrating to individuals that their actions are inconsistent with their moral standards. Some suggest that guilt should be paired with gain frames, whereas shame appeals are more effective when paired with loss frames (Duhachek, Argrawal, & Han, 2012). Typically, gain-framed messages emphasize what one stands to gain by engaging in recommended behaviors, and loss-framed messages emphasize what one stands to lose by not engaging in recommended behaviors (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Message framing does not alter its meaning. For example, the gain-framed message “75% of people who receive the treatment survive,” is semantically equivalent to the loss-framed message “25% of people who do not receive the treatment die.” These framing effects are believed to occur because gain frames facilitate the use of problem-focused coping strategies favored by guilt. Frames that fit with the elicited emotion facilitate the activation of coping strategies consistent with that emotion. Consequently, they lead to great fluency of message processing and higher message effectiveness.

Hypocrisy Induction. What guilt appeals attempt to accomplish affectively, hypocrisy induction aims to accomplish cognitively. To accuse someone of hypocrisy in everyday life is typically seen as an ethical accusation. It indicates that someone is applying different moral standards to essentially identical cases (Rai & Holyoak, 2014). According to the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), recognition of this kind of inconsistency is uncomfortable because people strive to be consistent. When they concurrently hold two psychologically conflicting cognitions, they experience dissonance. Dissonance is a noxious state, and individuals feel driven to rid themselves of discrepant cognitions. As with anticipated guilt, individuals also avoid situations that they believe are likely to increase their dissonance. One can reduce dissonance in two main ways: directly (changing one’s cognitions or behaviors to be in line with each other) or indirectly (misattributing or rationalizing the discomfort and not actually addressing the inconsistent elements.)

Given that people avoid dissonance, arousing dissonance in their minds by inducing hypocrisy can constitute a step toward persuasion (Freijy & Kothe, 2013). Hypocrisy induction as a technique involves a combination of two factors: commitment (advocating a position one supports) and mindfulness (being made mindful of one’s failure to act in accordance with the advocated standards; Fried & Aronson, 1995). Hypocrisy induction has been used for persuasion regarding practicing safe sex to prevent HIV infection, promoting water conservation, recycling, and promoting road safety. In all of these issues, persuaders attempt to arouse discrepancy between the prosocial advocacy and past transgressions of target audience members. Individuals are motivated to reduce this discomfort by modifying their subsequent behaviors in line with the prior advocacy. That is, they decide to practice what they preach. An interesting twist on hypocrisy can be found in the accusation of hypocrisy in others, such as in the “Truth” anti-tobacco campaign in which tobacco executives are portrayed as being fully aware of the dangers of tobacco but ignoring them (Truth Initiative, n.d.). The success of the campaign depends in part on psychological reactance in audience members, a motivational state that is elicited when people feel that their freedom has been unfairly threatened or eliminated (Brehm, 1981). In the case of the “Truth” campaign, audience members become angry at the thought that lying industry executives are purposefully robbing them of their freedom to choose knowledgeably.

Limitations and Ethical Issues with Appealing to Morality

Although evidence exists that all of the types of appeals to morality can increase compliance, sometimes this type of appeal has resulted in less helping behavior rather than more (Schwartz & Howard, 1981). This is often the case when an appeal is too strong. When an appeal is perceived as heavy-handed, targets of the appeal may become suspicious of the motives of the persuader or may doubt the true severity of the need (Ferguson, France, Abraham, Ditto, & Sheeran, 2007). They may begin mentally counter-arguing with the message, discrediting the source (Basil et al., 2008). Perception of overt manipulation in a persuasive appeal can also make people feel that they are being unduly pressured and stimulate psychological reactance. Even though the individual may accept the reality of the need presented, they may act to retain their behavioral freedom by resisting the appeal to help (LaVail, Anker, Reinhard, & Feeley, 2010). Also, external pressures to engage in moral behavior may undermine internalized motivations. In other words, if individuals are inclined to respond to a moral appeal on the basis of their belief that it is the right thing to do, external rewards may deprive them of the opportunity to see themselves as moral actors guided by their own moral values (Schwartz & Howard, 1981). Rewards and punishments may temporarily raise cooperation rates, but in the long run, they may be ineffective.

For instance, studies of blood donor behavior in the United States and Great Britain have indicated that rising numbers of commercial blood banks coincided with a decreasing number of voluntary donors (Chen, Pillutla, & Yao, 2009). Most volunteers gave moral reasons when asked why they donated blood, leading to the conclusion that commercialization can repress altruism and depress the sense of community surrounding an altruistic behavior. Similarly, incentive schemes for recycling have been shown in some cases to reduce the feeling of obligation in residents (Thogersen, 1996). The addition of an economic incentive may lead to reframing of the behavior in individuals’ minds such that it is mentally shifted from the domain of personal norms to the domain of economy. That may activate a completely different set of decision heuristics. As a result, it has been suggested that the most important question in designing incentive schemes may be the degree to which a reward acknowledges the actor’s intrinsic motivations. For a morally motivated individual, an incentive that is perceived as a token of approval strengthens commitment. If, however, people are given rewards for a behavior they would have done anyway, their intrinsic motivation may be weakened.

Appeals to morality also raise ethical issues. Because moral appeals in Western contexts are typically associated with an ethic of autonomy, appeals to personal responsibility risk imputing inappropriate blame to individuals when the actions proposed are not feasible (Guttman, 2001). When members of the target audience are not truly free to engage in the recommended morally significant behavior, appeals to morality may result in fatalism and shame. Low-power people may be unable to practice safe sex, care for the environment, or even prevent friends from driving drunk. Even if appeals are grounded in socially accepted values, imposing them from the outside may raise the specter of paternalism. Indeed, within the ethic of autonomy, it is fair to ask how ethical it is for a person to actively urge another free human being to change, and at what point the helper trespasses into another individual’s privacy.

Gaps in Current Literature

Since multimedia campaigns have become an accepted means of communicating about health and risk issues, appeals to morality, responsibility, guilt, and obligation have been used to persuade people. Appeals urging engagement in physical exercise, caring for ill loved ones, donating to health- and risk-related causes, among a plethora of others, have sought to elicit guilt, reveal hypocrisy, and generate warm, empathetic feelings in target audiences. Most of these appeals have been based in the moral domain of caring, although they occasionally tap into issues of justice and fairness. Explanations about the motivations that drive moral decisions remain contested. Some theorists argue and provide evidence that even altruistic acts are strictly the product of cost-benefit analysis by the actor. Others argue and also provide evidence that people can be motivated by personal norms even when outcomes are likely to be against their best interests. Still other scholars assert that moral actions spring from the arousal of relevant emotions, and attempts to understand the mechanisms behind moral appeals should begin there. Whatever the underlying process in prospective actors’ minds, evidence is clear that appeals to morality can have persuasive power.

Overall, a great deal of attention has been accorded to moral processes and motivations in the field of psychology, and a number of marketing studies have investigated moderators of effective donation and environmental persuasion. Specific theory addressing moral appeals messaging itself is spotty, however, and most heavily focused on defining the effects and moderators of guilt appeals. Contrarily, theory suggests that much more is happening in appeals to morality than elicitation of guilt. For example, Kohlberg’s (1981) theory of moral development asserts that violation of the principle of justice should also elicit anger, and fulfillment of the moral obligation to promote justice should produce gratitude and admiration. Although the Florida Legacy Foundation’s “Truth” anti-tobacco campaign stands out as an innovative and effective justice-related campaign that leveraged the emotion of anger, few studies in the field have investigated anger, gratitude, or admiration as emotions aroused by moral appeals. Among anticipated emotions, guilt has been a focal point for inquiry, but anticipated self-satisfaction, or pride, has received much less attention. Future research in health and risk communication should expand the conceptualization of the mechanism of moral appeals to investigate these and other potential means of persuasion.

Further Reading

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