How to defeat moral grandstanders (and stay classy while doing it)

These effective strategies can minimize harmful moral grandstanding – in yourself and in others.

BRANDON WARMKE: Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion. It's the thing that you say in order to satisfy your desire for moral recognition. It's what you type into your computer or on Twitter. It's what you say to your political allies in order to get them to think that you are morally impressive.

So a common impulse when you see someone do something bad is to scold them, to call them out. However, we don't recommend calling out grandstanding -- criticizing people for grandstanding.
As it turns out, it's very hard to know whether someone's grandstanding. Think about it: Grandstanding requires a certain kind of desire, a desire to impress other people. And that's not the kind of access you have into someone's head. You don't know, truly, whether someone is grandstanding or not. And we compared this to lying. It's very difficult to know whether someone is lying, especially if all you see is a bit of written text. Why? Because lying involves something like a desire or intention to deceive, and it's hard to read that off just what someone says or writes. And so this is one reason why just because someone says something false you don't go around accusing them of lying. Even if you see some behavior that looks like grandstanding, we think it's unfair or unjust to go around accusing people of it, because you probably aren't confident enough that this person is engaging in this kind of behavior.

There's another reason to avoid criticizing or calling people up for grandstanding, and that is that it's probably going to be counterproductive. Imagine what that conversation is going to look like. "You are a grandstander." And then you say, "Well, yeah? Well, you're a grandstander. You don't know what's in my head. You're just trying to score points by calling me out for grandstanding." And so the conversation is going to be not only in bad taste, but it's going to be unproductive. And so one thing we strongly recommend against is going around calling people out for grandstanding, even though, in a more general context, it can make sense to criticize the phenomenon of grandstanding. So what do you do about grandstanding?

One way to think about changing social norms involves both changing your personal behavior and then trying to get other people to follow suit. So let's just think about what it might mean to change our own behavior on, say, social media. So one question we encourage people to ask themselves is the following: When you're about to type into Twitter or post on Facebook, ask yourself, 'Am I doing this to do good or am I doing this to look good?' And if it turns out that a lot of our behavior is intended to look good -- to make ourselves look good -- we think it's unlikely, it would be quite the coincidence if that was the exact same behavior that was helpful for others or productive of good outcomes for a conversation about immigration or abortion. So one question to ask ourselves is, 'Am I trying to do good? Am I trying to help others? Or am I trying to look good?'

The other thing we encourage people to do individually is to redirect this desire, this recognition desire, this desire for moral praise. So, look, we probably all have this desire. We all want to be liked. We all want to be seen as morally good. Life would be difficult if everyone thought that we were horrible people. So we're not arguing that you should get rid of this desire. That's probably impossible. What we want to suggest is that there are some contexts in which satisfying this desire is not good. There are lots of natural desires that we have. You might desire to mate, but you don't satisfy this desire in small claims court. So just like there's a desire for recognition, it's natural, and we think it's probably a bad idea to satisfy that in public discourse. Go satisfy it somewhere else. Go satisfy in a context in which you might actually do some good. So if it's really important to you that people see you as a morally impressive person, go to the soup kitchen, volunteer, make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for people, and take pictures of it and post it on Twitter. At least that way, you're satisfying your desire by doing something good. If it turns out that we're right, and that grandstanding has lots of negative consequences -- satisfying that desire in public discourse causing polarization, cynicism about moral talk, outrage exhaustion -- you're probably going to have a more positive effect on the world by satisfying that desire in other contexts.

When you're wrong, admit it. When someone makes a good point, tell them so. If you're going to post news stories, try to avoid highly partisan news, what some scholars have called entertainment news. Try to avoid trying to score points and set a good example. Another thing that we suggest that people do to minimize grandstanding in others is to try to make grandstanding embarrassing. Now, how do you do that without blaming or shaming people? Well, imagine constructing a finely tuned Facebook or Twitter post about how Obama saluted the Marines with a coffee cup in his hand, or imagine writing a finely tuned Facebook post about how Oberlin College engaged in an egregious injustice by serving General Tso's chicken only to be met by zero likes. That, for most people, is going to be embarrassing. So look, what grandstanders want is your praise. They want you to think that they are morally exceptional. So how do you disincentivize? Don't give them the attention they seek.

  • What is moral grandstanding? Here's a comprehensive explanation of the psychology that drives this disruptive and divisive online behavior.
  • Moral grandstanding may have very serious consequences for social discourse, but calling it out and shaming moral grandstanders is unproductive, says Brandon Warmke.
  • To defeat moral grandstanding, you can do several things. Before posting anything online, ask yourself: 'Am I doing this to do good or am I doing this to look good?'. You can deny attention and praise to moral grandstanders, and you can redirect your own impulse to signal morality into actual volunteer work instead of online posts.