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A moral virtue theory of status attainment Bai, Feng


Recognition has grown that moral behavior (e.g., generosity) plays a role in status attainment, yet it remains unclear how, why, and when demonstrating moral characteristics enhances status. Drawing on philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and organizational behavior, I critically review a third route to attaining status: virtue, and propose a moral virtue theory of status attainment to provide a generalized account of the role of morality in status attainment. The moral virtue theory posits that acts of virtue elicit feelings of warmth and admiration (for virtue), and willing deference, towards the virtuous actor. I further consider how the scope and priority of moralities and virtues endorsed by a moral community are bound by culture to affect which moral characteristics enhance status. In particular, I theorize that virtues pertaining to community (e.g., humility) and divinity (e.g., cleanliness) are more effective to attain status in collectivistic cultures; whereas virtues pertaining to autonomy (e.g., rights) are more effective to attain status in individualistic cultures. Four experimental studies were conducted to examine the proposed theory. Studies 1 to 3 found that demonstrating a variety of virtues, including humility, cleanliness, and (advocating for human) rights, elicited admiration for virtue, which in turn led a virtuous actor to attain status. Expressing humility and cleanliness was more effective in attaining status in a collectivistic culture (India) than in an individualistic culture (the U.S.). Importantly, the positive impact of virtues on status attainment generally did not depend on the virtuous actor’s levels of competence. Study 4 showed that expressing humility led people to see the humble actor as a more desirable leader and to be influenced by the humble actor in a collaborative cognitive task. Humility and cultural self-construals interacted to affect the actor’s status through admiration for virtue. Specifically, individuals with high interdependent self-construals admired humility to a greater degree than those with low interdependent self-construals, which in turn led them to confer higher status to the humble actor. These findings provide initial empirical support for the moral virtue theory of status attainment. Implications for theory, research, and organizational applications are discussed.

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