Do-gooder derogation and the competition to be moral
As a society, we strive to make good choices and commit good deeds in order to prove that we are moral. However, sometimes our morally motivated acts are ridiculed by others who feel that their moral behavior is being threatened.
Do-gooder derogation is the idea of putting down morally motivated people because of their good actions. According to a study conducted by Julia Minson, an assistant professor at Harvard University, and Benoît Monin, a professor at Stanford University, there is anecdotal evidence showing that overtly moral behavior can cause annoyance and ridicule rather than respect or admiration.
A vegetarian lifestyle is an example of this idea. Vegetarians often choose to abstain from eating meat so as to not participate in the further killing of animals for food. In this mindset, they are doing something they consider to be good moral behavior and they are giving up something to benefit something else. However, according to Minson and Monin’s study, vegetarians are often put down for their decision to not eat meat. This reaction is because of the notion that vegetarians choose this dietary lifestyle to condemn others’ behavior, which meat-eaters see as threatening.
Emily Babin, a sophomore at Ithaca College, has been a vegetarian — specifically a pescatarian — for seven years. This means she doesn’t eat meat, but will eat fish. She said she has faced ridicule for this lifestyle choice.
“By my relatives the most,” Babin said. “My dad, he was so annoyed with it at first, he was like ‘just eat the meat, Emily, stop it.’”
The vegetarian lifestyle is one that includes various different motives. One major reason that one might choose to become vegetarian is the ethical reasoning behind it. A blog called The Vegetarian Voice wrote that many vegetarians disagree with the means by which society gets much of its food. Animals are put into stressful environments, so in order to protest against that, many vegetarians refuse to eat those animals.
This ethical choice is what causes meat eaters to put down the vegetarian lifestyle. ProCon.org shows both the pros and cons of becoming vegetarian and the reasonings behind both arguments. The arguments against vegetarianism include the reasoning that eating meat is not unethical, it’s a natural way of life, and that it is an essential part of human evolution. Another argument may be that vegetarian diets are not beneficial to the environment, as some vegetarians believe.
With these conflicting ideas, meat-eaters ridicule vegetarians because they feel their moral values are being threatened. If a person chooses to eat meat and a vegetarian doesn’t, it may make the meat-eating person feel as if they are less moral and are not as good a person as a vegetarian.
Monin said the idea of vegetarians being put down for their moral behavior is what provoked him to conduct a study on do-gooder derogation.
“I was increasingly intrigued by the fact that vegetarians, even when they mind their own business and do not proselytize, seem to annoy the omnivores around them,” Monin said. “A friend of mine, who was vegetarian, would tell me how at every family reunion some old uncle would sit her down and try to explain why she should be eating meat.”
Monin believed there was more to the idea that not all people who make ethical choices are always respected and admired, so he decided to look into it further.
This idea pertains to other aspects of life along with vegetarianism. Monin suggested the concept of do-gooder derogation can apply to any principled choice that is not widely shared by others. This choice can trigger a negative reaction toward those who present themselves as “holier” than another.
“Strict religious observance or something like virginity pledges can have that effect with people who sympathize with the cause,” Monin said. “Consumer choices like not owning a car, not owning a TV, can have that effect with people on the other end of the political spectrum.
Monin listed another example, saying parenting is full of principled choices that others may have different perspectives on. Breastfeeding, not using disposable diapers and not allowing children to eat sugar are just some of the personal choices a parent may make for their children. However, another parent may perceive these choices as a judgement of their own parenting.
Monin also discussed whistleblowing and reporting on problems in a group or organization. Monin said one reason whistleblowers are shunned and why people hesitate to expose wrongdoing is because of both resistance from those directly impacted by the revelations as well as the rejection by bystanders who did not react to and expose the wrongdoing themselves.
“When you take a stand in a situation, when you speak up and say something, you are implicitly saying to others who did not speak up that they failed to do their moral duty and that they are somehow deficient,” Monin said. “So whistleblowers can suffer do-gooder derogation from other bystanders or group members who did not do or say anything.”
One of the bigger questions of this whole subject is when humans develop these feelings of wanting to be the most moral.
The foundation of one’s moral behavior begins during childhood, according to a paper entitled “Do-gooder Derogation in Children: the Social Costs of Generosity.” Arber Tasimi, a graduate student in psychology at Yale University — along with other contributors — looked at how children, in the first stages of their lives, cling to those who are the most generous. However, as one gets older, a competition for who is the most generous develops, and those who do the most good are seen as an annoyance more than someone to befriend.
In Tasimi’s experiment, a group of children were each given six stickers. They were then shown a photo of child, Gary, and were told that Gary had no stickers. The experimenters then asked the children if they would give any of their stickers to Gary. Those who would placed their stickers in front of the photo. The children were shown two more photos of other children, Sam and Jeff. The experimenter said to the children that Jeff and Sam had six stickers each, and that Jeff wanted to give Gary five of his six stickers, while Sam only wanted to give one.
The results of the experiment were that the children gave away around three stickers each, dividing up their six equally. Tasimi said this was to be expected. The rest of the results said that a majority of the children “gave fewer stickers to Gary than the generous character and the same as or more than the ungenerous character.” This created a situation where a child’s own giving “compared unfavorably to that of the former and favorably to that of the latter.”
“When kids have the opportunity to give, there’s a big difference in terms of how they are interpreting the giving action of the others,” Tasimi said. “Regardless, whether the children did or not, there is still a strong preference for a more generous character and that asks the question, ‘who do you want to be friends with?’ This attraction is significantly reduced in what we call the comparison condition.”
Tasimi said he became interested in this study of do-gooder derogation after his own personal run-in with it at a coffee shop.
“I order my coffee, I paid for my drink, I received my change, and I put a dollar into the tip jar,” Tasimi said. “And as I was waiting for the barista to make my cup of coffee, I noticed that the person behind me in line, presumably another graduate student, ordered his drink, received his change and put two dollars into the tip jar. I remember standing there thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know this guy but I really hate him.’”
He said after this interaction, he began to question his good behavior and morals. In that moment at the coffee shop, he began looking at ulterior motives instead of those that are altruistic for why the person tipped more than him. He said that certain conditions seem to elicit more ulterior performance reasoning than others. Cases, like Tasimi’s, that may elicit social comparison are likely candidates to elicit that type of reasoning which leads to do-gooder derogation.
“We often experience this tension between wanting to do good, and that is wanting to applaud others for their positive behaviors, but on the other hand wanting to do well, and that is wanting to optimize our own self interest,” he said. “I think it says something about us as humans and that is that we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, even when it comes to dimensions such as moral behavior.”
Ana Borruto is a sophomore journalism major whose own morality could never be threatened. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.