Houston Voices

Navigating corporate challenge of genuinely supporting social causes, per Rice research

When it comes to promoting social causes, corporations have to find a way to appear genuine over posturing. Photo via Getty Images

It is becoming more and more common for companies to promote social causes such as human rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, and environmental sustainability. But organizations face a tricky dilemma when expressing commitments to helping address social issues: Stakeholders may interpret their words and deeds as shallow rhetoric or insincere posturing.

Terms like “greenwashing” (regarding environmentalism) or “pinkwashing” (regarding LGBTQ+ rights) are on the rise, and they signal heightened suspicions around companies doing something with ostensible objectives of bringing in positive social change.

It's critical for researchers and business leaders to investigate this duality of audience perception: actual virtue versus virtue-signaling. In an age of social media and polarization, consumers are increasingly likely to wonder: Does this company have ulterior motives? Are they trying to cover for their own wrongdoing? Are they actually walking the walk, or are they merely talking the talk?

When can companies avoid such suspicion of being pro-social imposters?

Minjae Kim of Rice Business and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan of MIT Sloan School of Management have taken a close look at the conditions under which upholding social norms will make firms appear to be “model citizens” and when it will make them seem like imposters.

Their theory is two-fold: First, those who follow through and do social good in response to an explicit “social mandate” are viewed as “model citizens.” Second, those who go out of their way to do social good without any prompts or social mandates are less likely to be trusted and will be widely viewed as imposters.

Think about the following situation. A “social mandate” is given to a politician when they are asked in an interview what they think about a particular cause. In that context, if they express support, audiences are less likely to suspect the politician of having ulterior motives or pandering to constituents. After all, if the politician does not express support in that situation, that is tantamount to expressing disapproval. Here, the interview question (i.e., “social mandate”) provides a cover of plausible deniability to any suspicions of ulterior motives. Law enforcement (e.g., police, prosecutors) often have this social mandate built into their professions.

But if the politician takes initiative — unprompted — to support the same cause, they will more likely be viewed with suspicion. They may instead appear to seek out social rewards associated with supporting the cause (e.g., good reputation), without the cover of plausible deniability.

To test their theory, Kim and Zuckerman launched a series of experiments involving 509 online participants based in the United States. The experiments sought to determine how respondents perceive individuals who encourage others to abide by social norms. Participants were specifically asked to identify which of two individuals they think are “model citizens” committed to the norm, or “imposters” who are uncommitted but trying to hide their own deviance.

The researchers found that people who encourage others to abide by social norms when prompted (“social mandate”) are perceived as “model citizens,” while those who do the same but without such prompts are more likely to appear as “imposters.” This duality provides a clear guideline for managers engaging in corporate social responsibility: When suspicions are rampant, launching pro-social campaigns without a plausible mandate may heighten suspicion regarding motives.

The larger question is how to build firms and societies where people can safely support norms (that we all support) without being suspected as imposters. After all, we want our own norms and moral principles to govern our lives. But in some situations, we may mistakenly vilify those who are trying to do good, based on the absence of some contextual “social mandate.”


This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Minjae Kim, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, the Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Trending News



A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

Trending News