Geoff Haddock, Ph.D.

Geoff Haddock Ph.D.

Attitude Check

How Do You Best Persuade Conservatives and Liberals?

Do conservatives and liberals react the same way to pro-environmental messages?

Posted Apr 26, 2016

Hardly a month goes by without a new headline describing new concerns about the environment (  Most people agree that the protection of the environment is one of the most (if not the most) significant challenges currently facing the world.  Large volumes of scientific evidence have demonstrated the importance of protecting the environment to fight climate change.  Despite this evidence, changing opinions and behaviors about important topics like climate change is not easy.  Sometimes people ignore appeals designed to change their views, and other times they listen, but old habits are hard to break.   

Bald Eagle, Kodiak, Alaska.jpg. Cut and retouched.
Source: Paul Lenz - Image:Bald Eagle, Kodiak, Alaska.jpg. Cut and retouched.

These issues have made researchers curious about the finding that politically conservative individuals are less likely to engage in environmental protective behaviors than liberal individuals (Guber, 2013).  It has been argued that one possible reason for this difference is that environmental issues (and information about the importance of protecting the environment) are usually presented and framed in ways that are less engaging to conservatives compared to liberals (see Feinberg & Willer, 2013).  This leads to the question of whether using different types of message frames for pro-environmental messages might be differentially effective in changing attitudes and behaviors among conservatives and liberals.  Recently, an interesting set of studies by Christopher Wolsko, Hector Areceaga, and Jesse Seiden (2016) explored this basic idea.  In one study, the scientists tested the effectiveness of pro-environmental messages that were framed either in terms of binding morality (that is, emphasizing authority and patriotism) or in terms of individualizing morality (that is, emphasizing caring and fairness).  The binding message asked participants to follow the examples of their religious and political leaders in defending their country’s natural beauty.  The message was accompanied by photos of a bald eagle and an American flag.  The individualizing message asked participants to show their compassion and allow everyone fair access to a sustainable environment.  This message was accompanied by photos of a person cradling as small plant and children watering a tree.  In addition to these two message conditions, the researchers included a control condition where participants did not receive any type of pro-environmental message.  The outcome variables included measures assessing pro-environmental attitudes (e.g., the importance of protecting the environment) as well as pro-environmental behavior (e.g., donations to a pro-environmental fund).  Based on Moral Foundations Theory (Haidt & Graham, 2007), the researchers predicted that liberals would exhibit more favorable pro-environmental attitudes and behavior in the individualizing and control conditions compared to conservatives, while conservatives would respond more favorably when presented in the binding message compared to either the individualizing or control conditions.  Overall, the results supported for the researchers’ predictions.

 These results are interesting and important in a number of ways.  First, they fit other research examining how framing issues in terms of authority versus fairness can lead to different effects among conservative and liberal individuals (see Day, Fiske, Downing, & Trail, 2014).  The results also speak to the potential of targeted messaging.  As described in an earlier blog entry, psychologists have found that “matching” a persuasive appeal to aspects of the message recipient’s personality leads to greater attitude change (see Maio & Haddock, 2015, for a review).  For example, people who are particularly concerned with maintaining harmonious social relationships with others are most likely to be persuaded by an appeal highlighting the image associated with a consumer product, whereas people who are particularly concerned with acting in fulfilling their own personal values are most likely to be persuaded by an appeal highlighting a product’s quality (Snyder & DeBono, 1985).  The reasoning behind this type of effect is that people are more likely to notice and pay attention to a message that “speaks their language” – making it more likely that a strong appeal will elicit attitude change.  Whereas much of the evidence examining these types of matching effects have used topics that are unfamiliar and/or unimportant to participants, Wolsko, Areceaga, and Seiden’s (2016) research addressed whether matching effects can be found when presenting people with information about an issue that is extremely important.

At a wider level, it is also interesting to integrate these types of findings to the language used by candidates seeking political office, and how they may sometimes use language and message frames in their speeches.  The same message may be delivered in a style of language that inspires some people and alienates others, even if the point is generally agreeable to all.


Day, M. V., Fiske, S. T., Downing, E. L., & Trail, T. E. (2014). Shifting liberal and conservative attitudes using moral foundations theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1559-1573.

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The moral roots of environmental attitudes. Psychological Science, 24, 56–62.

Guber, D. L. (2013). A cooling climate for change? Party polarization and the politics of global warming. American Behavioral Scientist 57, 93–115.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20, 98–116.

Maio, G. R., & Haddock, G. (2015). The psychology of attitudes and attitude change (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Snyder, M. & DeBono, K.G. (1985) Appeals to image and claims about quality: Understanding the psychology of advertising. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 586–97.

Wolsko, C., Areceaga, H., & Seiden, J. (2016). Red, white, and blue enough to be green: Effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 65, 7-19.

About the Authors

Geoff Haddock, Ph.D.

Geoff Haddock, Ph.D., is a Professor of Social Psychology at Cardiff University, UK.

Gregory R. Maio, Ph.D., is a professor of social psychology at Cardiff University, and has published on the topics of social values, attitudes, and behavior.

More Posts