The Art of Political Persuasion, According to Psychological Science

If you’re among the millions of Americans who have vowed to be more politically active and engaged since the 2016 presidential election, then you might be wondering how best to carry on a conversation with friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues on the other side of the political aisle.

Perhaps you’ve even wondered how – given the hyper-polarized state of American politics today – you might be able to persuade those at the other end of the political spectrum to come around to your point of view, particularly on hot-button political issues, such as President Trump’s recent crackdown on immigration, the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, LGBT rights, and climate change to name just a few.

Trying to persuade someone to adopt a new political viewpoint can be extremely difficult and frustrating, as anyone who’s ever argued with a friend or family member about politics will likely no doubt tell you. In part, this is because not everyone shares the same set of moral beliefs and priorities.

Indeed, according to an influential theory of social psychology known as “Moral Foundations Theory,” liberals and conservatives generally differ in terms of their core ethical values. Whereas liberals tend to endorse values such as fairness and protection of others against harm, conservatives tend to prefer values such as authority, group loyalty, and purity. As such, liberals generally advocate for things like social justice, equal rights, and environmental protections, whereas conservatives generally embrace tradition, patriotism, and the importance of religion to personal life. Moreover, it can be difficult to persuade someone – liberal or conservative – to come around to a new way of thinking because, during political discussions and debates, most of us usually frame our political arguments in a way that appeals only to our own unique partisan values. We therefore often fail to speak to our friends and family on the other side of the political aisle in moral terms they understand and appreciate.

Consider, for instance, how a liberal and conservative might differ in terms of how they frame the issues of same-sex marriage and climate change.

A liberal might argue that same-sex marriage should remain legal throughout the country because “this is the right thing to do” and because “everyone deserves to be treated equally.” Although this might seem like a fair enough argument to some, it’s probably unlikely to persuade many conservatives because, according to Moral Foundations Theory, it only appeals to the core liberal value of fairness, and most conservatives generally don’t endorse this value as highly as liberals do.

Similarly, a conservative might argue against environmental regulations to combat climate change because “regulations create a costly and excessive hardship for businesses and, therefore, constitute a threat to American capitalism.” Again, this may seem to some to be a perfectly reasonable argument, but it’s probably unlikely to resonate with many liberals because, on average, liberals tend not to endorse the values of group loyalty and patriotism to the same degree as conservatives.

Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder our political conversations and debates are so frequently unproductive. Liberals and conservatives frame their political positions in terms of such different values, it’s almost as though they’re speaking different languages.

So, how do we bridge the chasm that separates our two major political parties and begin, as a nation, to work toward more meaningful and constructive political conversation? Well, according to recent psychological research, the answer is fairly simple and straightforward. We need to make a concerted effort to re-frame our political opinions and arguments so that they appeal directly to the core values of our friends and family on the other side of the political aisle. This is something social scientists interested in political partisanship and political persuasion call “moral re-framing.”

 

Achieving Political Persuasiveness Through Moral Re-Framing

When it comes to being more politically persuasive, moral re-framing is simple, straightforward, and effective. However, few people actually seem to employ it.

In a 2015 paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Matt Feinberg from The University of Toronto and Robb Willer from Stanford University asked participants to write persuasive arguments aimed specifically at influencing members of the opposing political party. In the first study, they asked a group of liberals to write an argument supporting same-sex marriage that would appeal to conservatives, and in the second experiment, they asked a group of conservatives to write an argument in favor of making English the official language of the United States that would appeal to liberals.

Feinberg and Willer discovered that only a small minority of liberals (9%) made arguments that appealed to conservative moral values. Instead, as predicted, most liberals made arguments in favor of same-sex marriage that appealed solely to their own core liberal values (74%). The same thing occurred in the experiment focused solely on conservatives. Only 8 percent of conservatives wrote arguments in favor of making English the official language of the US that aligned with core liberal values. Meanwhile, 70 percent wrote arguments that fit with their own conservative values.

In subsequent experiments that were part of the same study, Feinberg and Willer investigated whether it’s possible to influence people’s opinions on various hot-button issues by manipulating how political arguments are framed. Specifically, they wanted to know whether liberals would be more responsive to a traditionally conservative stance when it was framed in terms of core liberal values, and whether conservatives would be more responsive to a traditionally liberal stance when it was framed in terms of core conservative values.

In this experiment, participants first read an article in support of universal health care – a traditionally liberal stance – framed either in terms of the core liberal value of fairness (i.e., “access to health care is a right”) or the core conservative value of purity (i.e., “sick people are disgusting”). Whereas liberals were relatively unaffected by the framing of the argument, conservatives exhibited stronger support for universal health care – and even Obamacare, specifically – after reading the argument framed in terms of the core conservative value of purity.

Similar results were obtained in a follow-up experiment focused on a traditionally conservative position, namely that the US should maintain high levels of military spending. When liberals read an argument framed in terms of fairness (i.e., “through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality”), they generally showed stronger support for military spending compared to when they read an argument framed in terms of loyalty and authority (i.e., “the military unifies us and ensures that the United States is the greatest nation in the world”).

Finally, to ensure the results described above were actually due to differences in core moral values between liberals and conservatives – and not due to some other extraneous factor – the researchers conducted one final experiment in which they directly measured participants’ support for a single core value, specifically the core liberal value of fairness. As in the previous studies, liberals exhibited stronger support for the idea of making English the official language of the US – a traditionally conservative position – after reading an argument that was framed in terms of fairness (i.e., “making English the official language would lead to more fair outcomes for immigrants and help them avoid discrimination”). Yet importantly, the same was true for anyone who expressed strong support for the moral value of fairness, regardless of whether they were liberal or conservative.

 

Moral Re-Framing and Lessons in Empathy

So what lessons should we take from these findings?

Well, for one thing, if you’re a liberal Democrat looking to convince a conservative Republican friend or family member of the importance of universal health care or of the need for federal involvement to combat climate change, then you should be careful not to craft your argument in terms of your own narrow, partisan moral framework. Instead, you should make an effort to re-frame your argument so that it more closely aligns with your fellow conservative friend’s values. This means you should avoid any appeal to fairness, equality, and protection from harm in favor of an appeal to authority, patriotism, group loyalty, and purity.

So with respect to combating climate change, you might try saying something that is framed in terms of purity such as, “We need to combat climate change because the Earth is our only home, and it is God’s beautiful gift to us,” rather than something that is framed in terms of protection from harm, such as, “Climate change poses a serious threat to animal habitats and the future of human civilization.” And when it comes to the matter of promoting universal health care, don’t argue from a point of fairness and equality as in, “Health coverage is a basic human right.” Instead frame your argument again in terms of purity with something like, “Uninsured people means more unclean, infected, and diseased Americans.”

But aside from showing us how to be persuasive and “win” political debates, I believe the findings of Feinberg and Willer imply something else far more important to remember. In the end  – and perhaps not surprisingly – political persuasion depends, at least partly, on our ability and willingness to see the world through each other’s eyes. What’s more, it depends on our having enough empathy, compassion, and respect for one another to be willing to craft a persuasive message that resonates with a set of values different from our own.

This means that in addition to being an efficient tool for political persuasion, moral re-framing might also be an effective means of promoting empathy and mutual understanding among people with differing ideologies – which is something we arguably need desperately today in American politics.

When you craft a political argument to resonate with the core values of an opposing ideological group, you can’t help but consider how members of that group might, in fact, perceive the world – and how their view of the world might legitimately differ from that of yours. If moral re-framing can help more people consider the world from someone else’s perspective, then this might well be the greatest thing it can do for American politics, far above and beyond any role it might play in direct political persuasion.

This post was also published over at Stronger North Carolina.


 

Author

Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla 

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