Which statement is more likely to make you concerned about the environment? To motivate you to take action to help the environment? 

1. “The environment is being harmed and destroyed, and it’s important for people to care about and protect it.” 

2. “The environment is polluted and contaminated, and it’s important for people to clean and purify it.” 

It turns out this is a really important question. Public opinion surveys show there are very large differences in partisans’ attitudes toward climate change in the US. For example, a 2010 Pew Research Poll found that 82% of Democrats view global warming as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem while 41% of Republicans (half the number) believe the same. There are a lot of divisive issues in American politics, but very few manifest such a large partisan divide. And these questions may be the key to understanding different people’s beliefs about global warming.   

What’s going on here?

In a recent study, researchers Matthew Feinberg (Stanford) and Robb Willer (University of California-Berkeley) speculated that the partisan differences may have something to do with the way global warming arguments are framed in the media. Specifically, the media (and many others, this isn’t all the media’s fault) tend to talk about climate change in terms of “care” and “harm,” as in statement #1 above. And indeed, Feinberg and Willer provide evidence this is the case. 

These researchers then noted evidence showing the care/harm frame is particularly persuasive for one group of people: political liberals. Care/harm is one of five fundamental domains of human morality, and it, along with the second domain of fairness/reciprocity, is associated with liberal political values. 

On the other hand, Feinberg and Willer noted conservative political values are particularly associated with the other three domains of morality: in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. So they next speculated that a discussion of global warming in terms of purity/sanctity, as in statement #2 above, would be more persuasive to conservatives. 

Sure enough, that is what they found. While liberals in the researchers’ experiment demonstrated the same concern about climate change regardless of the frame, conservatives showed significantly greater concern when the argument was framed in terms of purity/sanctity. More interestingly, conservative concern increased to the point that it was statistically indistinguishable from liberal concern. Wow! 

Purity, sanctity, and disgust

Violations of purity and sanctity often cause feelings of disgust. The things that consistently arouse disgust are things that make us sick, such as dead bodies and poo, which contain life-threatening bacteria and viruses. So it is believed the disgust response helps us avoid contaminated items that could give us a disease and, in evolutionary terms, reduce our chances of survival and reproduction.  

As I wrote in a previous post (Are You Easily Disgusted?), disgust sensitivity is emerging as an important political metric. It is useful for predicting people’s ideology as well as their attitudes toward homosexuality and immigration and now, apparently, global warming. 

Want to know your disgust sensitivity and how it compares to a large sample of conservatives and liberals? You can complete the Disgust Scale atYourMorals.org (register by answering a handful of typical survey questions then select the "Disgust Scale"). 

Feinberg and Willer confirmed that the purity/sanctity message elicited feelings of disgust and found that, indeed, more conservative respondents experienced more disgust in response to the message than the more liberal respondents. 

Once again, disgust raises its ugly, but useful head. 

Leave a comment to let me know which argument frame (harm/care or purity/sanctity) is more convincing to you. 

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For more information see:

Feinberg, Matthew, & Robb Willer. Forthcoming. “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes.” Psychological Science.

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