Transgressive Advocacy: People Are More Likely To Excuse Others’ Lies When They Support Shared Morals

In 2012, Mike Daisey appeared on the radio show This American Life to showcase excerpts from his famous monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The goal of the monologue was to reveal Apple’s unethical practices at their Chinese manufacturing factory, Foxconn.

On the air, Daisey claimed that the first thing he observed at Foxconn were angry guards with large guns stationed at the entrance of the factory. His descriptions of the conditions within the factory were no less horrifying: underage workers as young as 12 years old; workers with limbs mangled by faulty factory equipment; and workers whose hands shook uncontrollably as a result of exposure to potent neurotoxins. As a result of this litany of horrors, he argued that the costs of globalization and lower manufacturing prices were not worth the human and ethical sacrifices he documented.

The monologue was extremely popular, boasting 40 productions, translations into six languages, and more than 100,000 downloads. After the broadcast, however, producers at This American Life discovered that several of Daisey’s “facts” were fabricated. Even when directly confronted with evidence of his fabrication in a subsequent interview with This American Life host Ira Glass, Daisey still refused to acknowledge that he lied to the public, maintaining that his characterization was justified because it served a noble cause: making people care about Foxconn workers’ plight (Glass, 2012). But how did listeners perceive Daisey’s lies? Did they hold him accountable or agree that his lies were justified because they served a higher moral purpose?

In our study, we explored how people react to public figures like Daisey who bend the truth. We predicted that people’s personal moral conviction for a political issue — their strong and absolute belief that their position is right or wrong, moral or immoral — would cloud their judgments of public figures who lie for that cause. Our reasoning was that when a strong moral conviction is at stake, the transgressiveness of specific kinds of advocacy for that cause may be trivialized. Specifically, we hypothesized that people would be more likely to excuse the lies of likeminded political figures when the lies served perceivers’ strongly (vs. weakly) moralized beliefs. Only when perceivers disagreed with the moral cause underlying public figures’ lies did we predict that the lies would be seen as unacceptable.

To test these predictions, we attempted to simulate the Daisey monologue scandal. We first assessed people’s views on a political issue — in the case of our experiment, whether they supported or opposed federal funding of Planned Parenthood, and the extent to which they viewed the issue with moral conviction. They were then presented with a political monologue supporting Planned Parenthood that they believed was previously aired over public radio and downloaded thousands of times. After reading the monologue, participants were randomly assigned to learn that the monologue was deemed true (or false) by several fact-checking organizations. We then measured their reactions to this news, including the extent to which they believed the speaker was justified in delivering the monologue and their judgments of the speaker’s moral character.

We found that people’s perceptions of the speaker’s transgressive advocacy were uniquely shaped by their personal moral conviction for the cause. Although honesty was positively valued by all respondents, transgressive advocacy that served a shared moral (vs. nonmoral) end was more accepted, and advocacy in the service of a nonpreferred end was more condemned, regardless of its truth value.

A troubling and timely implication of these findings is that political figures may be able to get away with lies and corruption without losing support from their political base. Fact-checking organizations, such as Politifact, paint a picture of the U.S. 2016 Presidential election that is consistent with this reasoning. Over 75% of Donald Trump’s claims were ranked as “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” lies, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ claims both hovered around 30% false (Politifact, 2016). Perhaps one reason why candidates can get away with mild truth bending — or even blatant lies — is because those lies are seen by their morally convicted supporters as a necessary means toward achieving a higher moral end.

These findings are described in the article entitled Liars, Damned Liars, and Zealots: The Effect of Moral Mandates on Transgressive Advocacy Acceptance, recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

About The Author

Allison Mueller

Allison Mueller is a seventh-year doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago working with Dr. Linda Skitka. Her research broadly focuses on the “dark side” of morality: how and why people behave immorally in everyday life. Prior to starting graduate studies at UIC, she earned her B.A. in Psychology from Northwestern University in 2009.

Linda J. Skitka

Linda J. Skitka is a professor and the associate head of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley. Her research interests are at the intersection of social, political, and moral psychology. She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Social and Personality Psychology, was the founding chairperson of a consortium of professional societies that collaborated to launch the scholarly journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, and serves on numerous editorial boards.

Comment (1)

  1. My, what you might call, dialectic thinking process can use these concepts, correlations and supporting data for further analyzing my own personality reflected to me by others. As I can see myself as others see me, a gift that came after years of devotion to THC and other neurotransmitters that enabled me to experience this ability, I prefer other people in my life circle not know I can do this…so I look for people that understand and perhaps have the same gift…Seldom do I exercise this as it often times can bring a not so positive experience, I’ve come to realize, it is none of my business what anyone thinks about me..

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