Moral leadership is challenging for an obvious reason — you have to know what’s right and wrong. But it’s also difficult because, on the whole, people are ambivalent about moral crusaders. Now there’s a name for that strange mixture of admiration, guilt, and defensive dismissiveness you feel when you encounter someone better than you: it’s called “anticipated reproach,” and Benoît Monin, a psychologist at Stanford, has studied it in a number of fascinating experiments. His essential finding: The more we feel as though good people might be judging us, the lower they tend to fall in our regard. As he explains in a recent paper, coauthored with Julia Minson of Wharton, “overtly moral behavior can elicit annoyance and ridicule rather than admiration and respect” when we feel threatened by someone else’s high ethical standards.
I’d say this is a pretty good argument for rabbis not to try to uphold too high an ethical standard, at least if we want people to like us.