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The moral foundations of activism

Final Report Summary - TMFOA (The moral foundations of activism)

In this project we addressed the role of moral conviction in collective action: cooperative effort towards social change. Existing research suggests that strong, long term commitment to collective action results from a politicization process in which individuals come to identify with a social movement and internalize its norms and values. In the present project, we argued that this politicization process should result in the formation of a moral conviction in support of the collective cause. We predicted that the formation of such a moral conviction explains the elevated levels of collective action readiness among the politicized (Line 1), but that is also has the potential to cause friction between activists and those less committed to the collective cause (Line 2). Finally, we predicted that holding a moral conviction in support of a collective cause would lead individuals to dehumanize political opponents, which in turn was expected to lower the threshold for the use of more hostile forms of collective action against these ideological opponents (Line 3).
The results of 9 studies provided mixed support for these predictions. First of all, as expected, we found strong correlations between individuals’ level of politicized collective identification (an indicator of their level of politicization) and the extent to which they held a moral conviction in support of the collective cause. However, the two studies conducted to investigate the predictions made in research Line 1 showed no support for the prediction that moral conviction explains the effects of politicized identification on individuals’ willingness to engage in collective action. Instead, politicized collective identification and moral conviction were found to both, independently, affect individuals’ willingness to engage in collective action. The results of the research in Line 1 thus showed that both individuals’ level of politicization and the extent to which they hold a moral conviction in support of a collective cause were both (independently) positively associated with individuals’ willingness to take collective action in support of this cause.
We investigated the role of moral conviction in the relation between the politicized and un-politicized (Line 2) in three studies. As expected the results of these studies showed that this relation is not unequivocally positive, as could have been predicted based on existing research. Instead, we found that politicized individuals tend respond negatively to others who are less committed to the collective cause. Specifically, we the results showed that highly politicized (feminist) women disidentified from, experienced negative emotion towards, and were less tolerant of other women who were less committed to the cause. Furthermore, the results showed that these effects were mediated by moral conviction. As expected, individuals’ level of politicized collective identification was strongly related to the extent to which they held a moral conviction in support of their cause. This moral conviction in turn explained why politicized identification was associated with negative responses to those less committed to the collective cause.
In 2 studies we investigated the relation between politicized identification, moral conviction, the dehumanization of political opponents, and support for hostile forms of collective action against these opponents (Line 3). As expected, both politicized identification and moral conviction in support of the collective cause predicted support for hostile forms of collective action. Contrary to expectations, however, neither politicized collective identification, nor moral conviction in support of the collective cause were associated with increased levels of dehumanization of political opponents to the cause. Two follow up studies demonstrated that the effects of moral conviction on support for hostile forms of collective action were explained by altered construals of the collective cause. To be more precise, individuals with a strong moral conviction in support of the collective cause perceived the achievement of this cause as more necessary. This perceived necessity of social change was strongly predictive of support for hostile forms of collective action. Holding a moral conviction in support of a collective cause thus causes individuals to support hostile forms of collective action because they see the achievement of this cause as a necessity.
Taken together, the results show that it is important to consider the moral aspects of activism, both from the perspective of activist groups and from the perspective of government. From an activist perspective, it is important to maintain positive relations with others who are less committed to the collective cause. After all, such positive relations can help activists mobilize people to their cause. In this light, the results of Line 2 demonstrate a potential hazard to activist success; the strength of activists’ moral convictions about their cause leads them to distance themselves from less committed others, a response that may harm their cause in the long run. Awareness of this process could thus help activist groups maintain more positive relations with their mobilization potential. The results of Line 3 give insight into individuals’ motivation for supporting hostile forms of collective action, a motivation that might be of interest to those in government. The results specifically suggest that morally fueled collective action might turn hostile because those who engage in such behavior view the achievement of the collective goal as a necessity. Under such circumstances it is advisable to provide protesters with effective peaceful means of furthering their goal. When peaceful options for pursuing social change are available and effective, the use of hostile forms of collective action will be seen as less necessary and less justified.

Furthermore, a research visit to the University of Illinois at Chicago gave the fellow the opportunity to form a collaboration with Dr. Tomas Stahl and Prof. Linda Skitka (a world leading expert on the psychology of moral conviction). This collaboration focused on the moralization on the foundations of belief and spanned two research lines. Specifically, both of these research lines investigated the idea that people can come to view a reliance on rational means (i.e. on reason and evidence) in the formation and evaluation of belief as a moral virtue, and a reliance on irrational means (e.g. on intuition, authority) as a moral vice. We refer to this tendency a the moralization of rationality
In the first of these research lines, we developed and validated an instrument designed to measure individual differences in moralized rationality. The results of this research line demonstrated that the measure is internally consistent and displays the expected latent structure. Additional studies demonstrated that the measure has high test-retest reliability, good construct validity and high predictive validity. The second research line investigated differences between the religious and the nonreligious in the extent to which they moralize rationality, and the consequences of these differences. As expected, the results of this research line showed stronger moralization of rational processes of belief formation and evaluation among the non-religious than among the religious. Furthermore, this stronger tendency to moralize rationality explained why the nonreligious responded more negatively to violations of rationality (such as the use of homeopathy to cure an illness) than the religious.