Moral tribalism and its discontents: How intuitive theories of ethics shape consumers’ deference to experts

Samuel G. B. Johnson, Max Rodrigues

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (SciVal)
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We study the psychology at the intersection of two social trends. First, as markets become increasingly specialized, consumers must increasingly defer to outside experts to decide among complex products. Second, people divide themselves increasingly into moral tribes, defining themselves in terms of shared values with their group and often seeing these values as being objectively right or wrong. We tested how and why these tribalistic tendencies affect consumers' willingness to defer to experts. We find that consumers are indeed tribalistic in which experts they find convincing, preferring products advocated by experts who share their moral values (Study 1), with this effect generalizing across product categories (books and electronics) and measures (purchase intentions, information-seeking, willingness-to-pay, product attitudes, and consequential choices). We also establish the mechanisms underlying these effects: because many consumers believe moral matters to be objective facts, experts who disagree with those values are seen as less competent and therefore less believable (Studies 2 and 3), with this effect strongest among consumers who are high in their belief in objective moral truth (Study 4). Overall, these studies seek not only to establish dynamics of tribalistic deference to experts but also to identify which consumers are more or less likely to fall prey to these tribalistic tendencies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-65
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Behavioral Decision Making
Issue number1
Early online date26 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • expert choice
  • moral psychology
  • social evaluation
  • tribalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Decision Sciences
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Strategy and Management


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