Lead the horse to water, but don't make him drink: The effects of moral identity symbolization on coworker behavior depend on perceptions of proselytization

Luke (Lei) Zhu, Simon Lloyd D. Restubog, Keith Leavitt, Le Zhou, Mo Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


We propose that exposure to moral identity symbolization (i.e., outwardly projected displays of one's morality) leads observers to increase their helping behavior because they perceive the symbolizer as more scrutinizing of their moral characters, especially when observers expect or have an ongoing relationship with the symbolizer. We further propose that the effect of moral identity symbolization on observer behavior is diminished when symbolization involves behaviors that threaten the autonomy of observers (i.e., moral proselytizing). Empirical data from four studies, consisting of field surveys and experiments, supports our hypotheses. Taken together, this research suggests that moral identity symbolization in the workplace leads to helping behavior in observers as a function of heightened perceptions of moral scrutiny, but that such outward display of morality is only related to helping behavior when the symbolizers avoid proselytizing and when there is an ongoing relationship between the observers and the symbolizers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-68
Number of pages16
JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
StatePublished - Jan 2020



  • Ethics
  • Moral identity
  • Moral psychology
  • Symbolization
  • Unethical behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management

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