The Strength of Moralized Opinions
Why opinions based on moral convictions are durable and influential.
Posted July 21, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
People have lots of opinions, and the reasons for those opinions can come from anywhere. Two people might agree that they love a particular restaurant, but they disagree on why it’s so great. Maybe one person likes it for practical reasons—the food comes out very quickly. But another person might like it for aesthetic reasons—the décor is vibrant and modern.
One of the places our opinions can come from is our sense of moral right and wrong. Perhaps the restaurant in question specializes in organic plant-based foods. So, although a third person might agree with the previous two that they love this restaurant, this person likes it for moral reasons. Psychologists often refer to such an opinion as a “moralized attitude.”
When Jake and I started this blog, our first post was about “strong opinions.” We said that strong opinions do three things:
- Persist over time
- Resist persuasion
- Guide behavior
So let’s explore whether moralized opinions really are “strong.”
Moral Opinions Persist Over Time
We can start by looking at how much moralized opinions tend to stay the same over time. Are they stable? Or does morality just give us an illusion of conviction in the moment that doesn’t actually stick around?
My student JJ Togans and I recently published a paper where we looked at how much moralized attitudes remained stable over time. We looked at people’s opinions about 19 different topics, including GMOs, marijuana legalization, and gambling, and we asked people for their opinions in one survey and then asked for their opinions again days, weeks, or months later.
We found that, on average, the more people said that they held an opinion for moral reasons, the more consistent their opinions were when we followed up with them later.
So, overall, it does seem that moralized opinions stick around longer than non-moralized opinions.
Moral Opinions Resist Persuasion
Okay, so moralized opinions stick around if you just leave them be. But what if you try to challenge them? What if you have to confront some intriguing arguments that suggest you’re wrong?
A few years ago, my colleagues and I asked exactly this question, so we ran a couple of experiments where we asked people about their opinions about recycling. Almost everyone said that they supported recycling, but we concocted an essay with fairly compelling reasons why recycling isn’t the perfect answer to a healthier environment. For example, recycling programs add more trucks to the roads, which contribute even more pollution.
We wanted to see whether this essay would push people to have a slightly less optimistic view of recycling. But before we showed the essay, we subtly nudged some people to think of their pro-recycling opinions as having a basis in their moral values, and we subtly nudged other people to think of their pro-recycling opinions as coming from practical concerns.
In the end, the people who came to perceive a moral basis for their recycling opinions resisted the persuasive arguments—they changed their opinions less than the people who saw their opinions as rooted in practical concerns.
Moral Opinions Guide Behavior
Finally, although it’s clear by now that people often hang onto their moralized opinions over time and in the face of persuasion, do these opinions actually inform people’s behavior?
One area where researchers have looked closely at this is in people’s voting behavior. In the United States, people frequently have the opportunity to turn their opinions into action by casting a vote for their preferred political candidates or about important local and national issues. But we know that just because someone might prefer one candidate or support an issue, they can opt not to show up on Election Day.
To see whether moralization matters in these political actions, Dr. Linda Skitka and her colleagues have surveyed people about their opinions and their election behavior. In one study, they found that the more people thought their choice for president reflected their moral beliefs, the more likely they were to vote in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. They’ve similarly shown that the more people think that their position on a specific issue is rooted in their moral beliefs, the more they say they will vote in upcoming elections.
Looks Strong to Me!
Moralization seems to check all the boxes for being an indicator of a strong opinion. The more people attach an opinion to their sense of moral right and wrong, the more that opinion persists over time, resists persuasion, and coheres with relevant behavior.
But, as always, things are more complicated than that. As my colleague Vanessa Sawicki and I have recently argued, opinions that look like they should be strong can still turn out to be weak if the conditions are right.
That is, there may be times when moralized opinions don’t guide behavior. For instance, even when one brand at the store is the morally superior choice, people may still opt for a product of higher quality or lower price.
And there may be times when moralized opinions are relatively open to change. For example, my colleagues and I have found that when a persuasive essay uses moral arguments that speak directly to what the audience might care about, moralized opinions resisted the message less. (You can read more about that here.)
So even though it looks like morality tends to make opinions stronger, more research is needed to uncover when moralized opinions can crack.
Luttrell, A., Petty, R. E., Briñol, P., & Wagner, B. (2016). Making it moral: Merely labeling an attitude as moral increases its strength. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 65, 82–93.
Luttrell, A., Phillip-Muller, A., & Petty, R. E. (2019). Challenging moral attitudes with moral messages. Psychological Science, 30(8) 1136-1150.
Luttrell, A., & Sawicki, V. (in press). Attitude strength: Distinguishing predictors versus defining features. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
Luttrell, A., & Togans, L. J. (in press). The stability of moralized attitudes over time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Morgan, G. S., Skitka, L. J., & Wisneski, D. C. (2010). Moral and religious convictions and intentions to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 10(1), 307-320.
Skitka, L. J., & Bauman, C. W. (2008). Moral conviction and political engagement. Political Psychology, 29(1), 29-54.