Instrumental Use Erodes Sacred Values

Rachel L. Ruttan*, Loran F. Nordgren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


A fundamental feature of sacred values like environmental-protection, patriotism, and diversity is individuals’ resistance to trading off these values in exchange for material benefit. Yet, for-profit organizations increasingly associate themselves with sacred values to increase profits and enhance their reputations. In the current research, we investigate a potentially perverse consequence of this tendency: that observing values used instrumentally (i.e., in the service of self-interest) subsequently decreases the sacredness of those values. Seven studies (N = 2,785) demonstrate support for this value corruption hypothesis. Following exposure to the instrumental use of a sacred value, observers held that value as less sacred (Studies 1–6), were less willing to donate to value-relevant causes (Studies 3 and 4), and demonstrated reduced tradeoff resistance (Study 7). We reconcile the current effect with previously documented value protection effects by suggesting that instrumental use decreases value sacredness by shifting descriptive norms regarding value use (Study 3), and by failing to elicit the same level of outrage as taboo tradeoffs, thus inhibiting value protective responses (Studies 4 and 5). These results have important implications: People and organizations that use values instrumentally may ultimately undermine the very values from which they intend to benefit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1223-1240
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2021


  • Morality
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Sacred values
  • Self-interest
  • Values

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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