Research & Insights

Use the Right Moral Message to Bridge the Partisan Divide

When it comes to persuading your political rivals to support issues that seem to go against their core values, research suggests showing them how the causes align with their moral values can be effective.

These findings come from a series of experiments designed to see whether using liberal values to speak to liberals and conservative values to speak to conservatives could sway their stances on political issues. The results of the experiments were published in a 2015 issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In the study, one experiment involved the issue of universal health care. Two hundred and eighty-eight participants were recruited online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program and given a survey measuring their political ideology. They were then asked to read an article supporting universal health care. One article focused on fairness – suggesting that health coverage is a basic human right – a value that appeals to liberals. Another article promoted purity – a value that resonates with conservatives – by emphasizing that “uninsured people means more unclean, infected and diseased Americans.”

Afterwards, when asked about their support for universal health care in general and their support for the Affordable Care Act, liberals were unchanged in their support no matter which article they read. However, conservatives were more likely to support the Affordable Care Act when it was framed as promoting purity rather than fairness.

But it’s not just conservatives who can be swayed by discussions of values. Another experiment flipped the script and found that liberals could be persuaded to support higher levels of military spending by appealing to the value of fairness.

For example, participants read articles that argued that “through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality.”

“[O]ur research presents a means for political persuasion that, rather than challenging one’s moral values, incorporates them into the argument. As a result, individuals see value in an opposing stance, reducing the attitudinal gap between the two sides,” the researchers explain. “This technique not only substantiates the power of morality to shape political thought but also presents a potential means for political coalition formation.”

Contributing author Robb Willer noted in an interview with the Stanford News that “[m]orality can be a source of political division, a barrier to building bi-partisan support for policies…But it can also be a bridge if you can connect your position to your audience’s deeply held moral convictions.”

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Matthew Feinberg, University of Toronto
Robb Willer, Stanford University

Posted: November 2, 2015
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