Your co-workers bring those raggedy cupcakes and cookies in while you’re on your weight loss journey because they can’t help it. Literally. That, in particular, is literally human nature.

In reading a Harvard Business Review article about research on ethical shoppers and how they annoy people more than they inspire them (organic, cage free, grass fed blue jeans, anyone? /sarcasm), I did a double take when I read the following:

The Challenge: Why would people look down their noses at ethical shoppers? Aren’t they role models for the rest of us? Professor Reczek, defend your research.

Reczek: We already knew from past research that most consumers will choose not to look at a company’s ethical practices when selecting products. Our goal was to study downstream consequences. When you decide not to seek out ethical information about a company but then see another person doing it, how does that make you feel? What are the social consequences of seeing someone do the ethical thing after you remained willfully ignorant? What we found is that people put down these “ethical others,” rating them as more boring, odder, and less attractive—all these really negative things.

HBR: Are humans so terrible that we think people who do good are weird?

Two things can happen when people see someone else doing something moral. They can either be inspired by that person or denigrate him or her. They may do the latter because of something psychologists call social comparison theory. It holds that we all have an overarching propensity to compare ourselves to others. If you see someone who is better than you on some dimension, like ethics, you feel threatened. It makes you feel bad about yourself. One way to overcome that is to put the other person down. Until our study, this hadn’t been explored in the context of ethical consumption. We predicted that this negative effect would occur, because how ethical people feel is a really important part of their identity.

Why were you so certain the subjects would act negatively? Why didn’t you think people would be inspired by ethical shoppers?

Most of the studies of what’s called moral elevation—when you see someone act ethically and want to emulate that behavior—have looked at exceptional acts, like starting a soup kitchen to help the homeless. We’re inspired by people like Mother Teresa, who do really amazing things to transform their communities. This often does lead to moral elevation. But most of us haven’t encountered a situation in which we’ve deliberately made a choice not to do that inspiring thing. Since you didn’t actively choose not to start a soup kitchen, you don’t experience a sense of threat the way you do if you observe someone buying jeans in a more ethical way than you did.

But maybe I really don’t care about the ethics of how they were made.

Our pretests show that people do think ethical attributes are important. So it’s not that they don’t care about them. If they know that something has been made under terrible labor conditions, they probably won’t buy it. It’s just that they would rather not find out. Julie Irwin did groundbreaking work on this idea. She found that people will use ethical information if it’s right in front of them, but they won’t seek it out. It’s a coping mechanism to avoid having to deal with the bad feelings that will arise if you discover horrible practices. [source]

Call me crazy, but I can’t help but feel like this applies to fitness and weight loss, too. (It quite literally applies to sustainable food supplies, too, but that’s another post for another day.)

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that human beings yearn for community. We share the best parts of ourselves—or what we believe to be the better and most positive parts of ourselves—in hopes that it will draw people closer to us and validate our successes not with literal praise but with camaraderie. (This is in contrast to the destructive habit of vomiting up every wrong and bad thing about yourself in hopes that it’d push people away.)

So, when you share with your co-worker—someone who might not’ve been a friend you would’ve chosen outside of work, but you live with it anyway because you both have the shared goal of getting paid—this positive and exciting thing you did that yielded this result, sure enough, the comparisons start in their mind.

Comparison is how we estimate and understand our own perspectives and realistic place in the world. It’s how we self-evaluate and, essentially, evolve when we need to do so. Except, when there are barriers that prevent us from doing so—a person who ‘cannot’ eat better because they believe it’s ‘too expensive,’ for example—may opt to go the more hostile route instead of simply cheering you on without feeling threatened, or even worse: trying to eradicate the threat to their way of thinking by sabotaging you or deciding to end the friendship.

The paragraph about “moral elevation” and the active choices people make should really drive it home. People often see “taking the office candy” or “eating the office cupcake” or “not putting in the effort to lose these pounds” as an active choice, especially considering how often people don’t want to know or hear about how wrong or bad it is for them to do so, just like above. People do care about the healthfulness of the food they eat, but do they want to hear about it when their brain chemistry might be telling them “yes?”

I think most people want to be seen as healthy and health-minded, but they will tell you that ice cream/cupcakes/Jolly Ranchers* are just too delicious. When you come up with your weight loss progress and your damn race medals and your clothes fitting differently and your audacity to not eat the office cookies (how rude!), the comparisons begin and, if they haven’t worked to stop this cycle, so does the sabotage.

I don’t know that I’d consider living a healthy life the “moral” thing—I think “morality” implies a level of mindfulness that most people haven’t been raised with when it comes to it—but I do think that if you replace the words “moral” and “ethical” with “healthy,” this is spot on.

What do you think?

*I now have diabetes after typing that.

For more information on saboteurs in the workplace: