The long Presidential election campaign in the US is finally over.  Throughout the campaign, there was a lot of discussion about specific policies that different candidates would support.  For example, President Obama often pointed to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as a signature achievement of his first term in office, while arguing that Mitt Romney opposed that act.  These discussions tend to focus both on particular policies (like the Fair Pay Act) as well as on broader values that these policies signal (like Equality). 

Suppose you were trying to influence people’s opinion about particular policies.  Would it be better to talk about the specific policy, or is it more effective to focus on the values related to that policy?

This question was addressed by Kevin Blankenship, Duane Wegener, and Renee Murray in a paper in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  They argued that people have a lot of experience defending their views on particular behaviors or policies.  So, if you try to argue someone out of their belief on a policy, they will resist the argument and generate counterarguments.  Those counterarguments protect their belief about the policy.

People have less experience arguing about values, though.  When someone argues against a value, it does not trigger as many counterarguments.  The arguments that they hear about their values undermine their belief on those values, which can then influence their opinion about policies related to the value.

To test this possibility, the researchers focused on undermining students’ belief in fair pay laws.  Most college students are in favor of laws that mandate fair pay, and so it provides an opportunity to influence the students’ beliefs.  Participants were asked about their attitudes toward fair pay laws prior to the study.

Some students read an essay that they were told was written by a professor who aimed to attack fair pay laws, arguing that they reduce productivity and can bankrupt companies.  Other students read the identical essay, but were told that it was written by a professor who aimed to attack the idea of equality in society.  So, the arguments that people read were identical, only the target (a particular policy versus a value) was different.  After reading these essays, participants once again rated their support of fair pay laws.

Participant who read an essay attacking fair pay laws were relatively unaffected by what they read.  Their attitude toward these laws was roughly the same before and after reading the essay.  Those who read an essay attacking the idea of equality, however, were more strongly influenced.  Their attitude toward fair pay laws went down substantially after reading the essay.

Other studies in this series expanded on the results in two ways.  First, studies demonstrated that attacking a value undermined people’s confidence in that value, which ultimately led them to feel worse about policies related to that value.  Second, two studies found that attacking a value influenced beliefs about policies related to that value, but not policies related to other values.  So, attacking the value of equality made people feel worse about policies like affirmative action and civil rights, but not policies like letting the CIA read emails of private citizens (which is related to the value of freedom) or nuclear power as a source of energy (which is related to the value of the environment). 

This effect of arguing about values rather than policies reflects that people find it easier to construct arguments around policies than to construct arguments around values.  If policy makers start to focus their arguments on values, though, people will become more adept at making arguments about values.  So, while the strategy of arguing against values may be effective now, it is not clear whether it would continue to work in the long run.

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