Leaders are judged quite harshly when they change their minds on issues they previously claimed to support due to their morals, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.
These leaders are perceived as hypocrites, less effective and less worthy of future support.
“Leaders may choose to take moral stances, believing that this will improve audiences’ perceptions. And it does, initially. But all people, even leaders, have to change their minds sometimes,” said lead author Tamar Kreps, Ph.D., of the University of Utah.
“Our research shows that 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. Due to this perception of hypocrisy, they are also seen as less effective and less worthy of support.”
For the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers conducted a series of 15 online experiments involving more than 5,500 U.S. participants aged 18 to 77. In each experiment, participants learned about political or business leaders who had changed their opinion on an issue.
Some participants were informed 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.
In all the experiments, participants rated the leader who changed his or her mind on the moral stance as more hypocritical and, in most cases, less effective and worthy of their support than leaders whose initial stance was pragmatic or logical.
Most surprising was how difficult it was to eliminate the effect, according to Kreps.
“In different studies, we tried to test various factors we thought might weaken the effect. For example, what if the leader used the same moral value in the later view as in the earlier view? What if the leader did not rely on popular support and therefore would have no reason to pander?”
“What about participants who believed in moral relativism, the view that there is no objective reality in the first place? None of those things made a difference — initially moral mind-changers consistently seemed more hypocritical,” she said.
The findings show that people think that breaking moral commitments is not only difficult, but also wrong.
“All in all, these results paint a glum picture for initially moral leaders. 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,” said Kreps.
For leaders who still use moral arguments, there is some good news if they have to change their minds later, said Kreps. While in all cases, leaders who changed position on a moral stance were seen as more hypocritical, they were not seen as less effective or unworthy of support if they said it was because of a personally transformative experience or out of their control due to external forces,.
“We know that moral beliefs do tend to stay more constant over time. So, leaders should take moral stances only if they have the underlying beliefs to back up those stances,” said Kreps. “Taking an inauthentic moral view to try to pander to a moralizing audience could backfire, if a leader needs to change that view later on.”