August 11, 2011; Source: Boston Globe | Some people seem to live their lives in ways that inspire the rest of us to better ourselves, while other people, equally virtuous in their actions, come off as sanctimonious and inspire resentment. Why the difference?

The Boston Globe reports that a Stanford psychologist, Benoît Monin, has come up with a reason. It has to do with whether or not we feel judged by the person whose actions we are observing. Monin puts it this way: “Overtly moral behavior can elicit annoyance and ridicule rather than admiration and respect.”

Monin found, for example, that meat eaters over-estimate how much they are being judged by vegetarians. Monin calls this feeling of resentment toward people we perceive as our moral betters “anticipated reproach.” We assume that we are about to get chewed out for something we’re doing wrong, and even if we agree that the person judging us is correct, no one likes being judged. So we tune out their message.

Organizations trying to change the minds of the public have to deal with this problem all the time. Often, there are one or two genuinely judgmental people out there who are working on your issue and who have managed to offend the people you are trying to reach. The solution, Monin says, is to be aware of this dynamic, and “cultivate an awareness of the ways in which social hierarchies and interpersonal tensions cloud our judgments.” Not easy, but important nonetheless.—Chris Hartman