The money or the morals? When moral language is more effective for selling social issues

By: David M. Mayer, Susan J. Ashford, Scott Sonenshein, Madeline Ong

M. Mayer, David & Ong, Madeline & Sonenshein, Scott & J. Ashford, Susan. (2019). The Money or the Morals? When Moral Language Is More Effective for Selling Social Issues. Journal of Applied Psychology. 10.1037/apl0000388.


We examine the effectiveness of economic and moral language used by employees when selling social issues to management. In contrast to prior work finding that employees believe it is best to use economic language to influence management to address social issues, we draw on the issue selling, persuasion, and behavioral ethics literatures to demonstrate that moral language is actually most influential-especially when the language is framed to align with the organization’s values and/or mission. The results from a combination of 3 field survey studies and 1 experimental vignette study provide support for this hypothesis. In addition, we find support for obligation (i.e., manager’s anticipated guilt), rather than inspiration (i.e., manager’s prosocial motivation), as a mediator of this interactive effect. We discuss implications for literatures on issue selling, persuasion, and behavioral ethics.