We live in an era fraught with political partisanship and obstinacy. Liberals and conservatives seem unable to persuade their political opponents to do, well, anything.

It’s not for lack of caring or trying, but good intentions and genuine effort aren’t enough.  One has to know the right technique—and that’s where moral psychology enters the picture.

Last year, social psychologist Matthew Feinberg at the University of Toronto and sociologist Robb Willer at Stanford University reported a set of six studies that investigated various means by which to persuade one’s political and ideological opponents (Feinberg & Willer, 2015).

The hypotheses they tested were derived from Moral Foundations Theory, which posits that the moral concerns of people around the word can be characterized in terms of five primary moral values:  (1) caring for and protecting people from harm (harm), (2) upholding fairness and reciprocity (fairness), (3) being loyal to one’s in-group (loyalty), (4) respecting legitimate authorities (authority), and preserving purity and sanctity (purity).[i]

Researchers have discovered that political liberals tend to embrace moral values based on harm and fairness more strongly than political conservatives do. Conservatives, however, tend to embrace moral values based on loyalty, authority, and purity more strongly than liberals do.

In their initial studies, Feinberg and Willer found that, when people discussed political issues, both liberals and conservatives overwhelmingly constructed arguments that reflected the moral values of their own political group instead of considering the moral values of the other group. For example, when trying to persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage, only 9% of liberals wrote arguments that reflected conservative moral principles like obeying authority and being loyal. Similarly, when trying to persuade liberals to support English as the official language of the United States, only 8% of conservatives wrote arguments that fit with liberal moral values like preventing harm and being fair.

In later studies, Feinberg and Willer discovered that liberals and conservatives had more success persuading political opponents when they framed their arguments in terms of the moral values of their adversaries. The most effective persuasive appeals were the ones that literally spoke the (moral) language of the enemy.

In one experiment, liberals were induced to support high levels of military spending when the persuasive message they received included an explicit appeal to fairness. By serving in today’s military, said the message, disadvantaged persons can achieve equal standing, socially and economically; they can overcome the challenges of poverty and discrimination. An appeal that invoked principles of loyalty and authority—the military unifies us and ensures that the United States is the greatest nation in the world—was much less effective at convincing liberals.

In a second experiment, volunteers read a short article in support of same-sex marriage and then expressed their views on the subject. Some participants read an article that was framed in terms of fairness (all citizens should be treated equally). Others read an article that invoked the moral value of loyalty (same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans). Liberals were more persuaded by the fairness argument than the loyalty argument. Conservatives, however, were more persuaded by the loyalty argument than the fairness argument.

In a third experiment, liberals were induced to support English as the nation’s official language, but only when the persuasive appeal said that making English the official language would help immigrants avoid discrimination and be treated more fairly.

Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist, is said to have written:  If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.

By reframing arguments to reflect your opponent’s moral concerns, you become the enemy.  And victory is yours.

Source:  Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2015). From gulf to bridge: When do moral arguments facilitate political influence? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(12), 1665-1881.

[i] Moral Foundations Theory was initially developed by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham at the University of Virginia.  You can read about their work at the Moral Foundations web site.

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