How to Make Conservatives Care More About the Environment? Use Messages that Speak to Their Morals

People protesting on 4th July (Vacclav)For most liberals and progressives, simply hearing or reading about environmental destruction/pollution, the scientific consensus on global warming, the loss of biodiversity and diminishing resources and ‘quality of life’ standards is enough to persuade us to take action to protect the natural environment.

But these issues and values — framed in terms of a “moral duty” to protect the environment — tend to make less compelling arguments to (self-identified) conservatives — especially perhaps to that friend or relative we all know who is staunchly pro-industry (“drill, baby, drill”).

This has come to define the partisan gap on environmental concerns and issues.This gap has a major impact on national policy as well.

In a recent series of experiments by researchers at UC Berkeley, results showed that how we (environmentalists) frame the message (intended for more conservative types) makes a big difference in narrowing that gap.

In general, existing research supports the idea that when environmental messages are “re-framed” to incorporate moral values espoused by conservatives — moral values such as “purity” and “sanctity”, and even patriotism and “reverence for a higher authority” — they are more persuasive and successful at motivating support for protecting the environment.

A Moral Duty…but How to Motivate?

UC Berkeley psychologists wanted to explore the idea of a “moral obligation to protect the environment” more extensively by conducting a series of experiments.

“When individuals view protecting the environment as a moral issue, they are more likely to recycle and support government legislation to curb carbon emissions,” said lead author Matthew Feinberg.*

But, as results will show, it’s not quite that simple; what prompts the sense of moral obligation to protect the environment in more conservative folks is less straight-forward and doesn’t happen simply by being told that they have this moral duty (especially, presumably, if it comes from the “Liberal media”).

The Experiments

In the first of three experiments, over 180 men and women were recruited from U.S. Craigslist websites and ranked according to their political orientation on a scale ranging from “extremely conservative” to “extremely liberal.” Each was then asked to rate the “morality” of various activities, such as recycling a water bottle verses throwing it away. This study’s results — along with a similar one using 476 college students — showed that self-identified liberals are/were more likely than conservatives to view this disposal/recycle decision (and thus the issue of sustainability) as a moral one.

The researchers next conducted a content analysis of pro-environment videos on Youtube and over 200 op-eds from a selection of major newspapers.** These were then  sorted into two general categories: ‘harm/care’ and ‘purity/sanctity’. Researchers hypothesized that the former category would appeal more to liberals and the latter to conservatives.

Indeed, they found that those opinion pieces that stressed a “moral obligation” to protect the environment were persuasive to liberals, in general, but much less so to conservatives.

However, when conservatives read or saw messages that stressed the necessity of protecting “the purity of the environment” and were also shown repugnant images (e.g., someone drinking dirty water, or a forest glade with a pile of garbage in the middle of it) their motivation (i.e., to take action or give support) increased significantly.

In the final experiment, over 300 men and women were randomly tasked with reading one of three articles: one that framed its environmental message according to a harm/care theme (along with typical pro-environment images like a forest riddled with tree stumps, or a bleached, barren coral reef); the second article framed its message according to a purity/sanctity theme, stressing how pollution is contaminating the Earth and peoples’ bodies (accompanied by an image of someone drinking polluted water, a city under a thick cloud of smog or a forest full of garbage).

The third, “neutral” article (used as a control) concerned a history of neckties.

Raw sewage and industrial waste in the New River
Raw sewage and industrial waste in the New River as it passes from Mexicali to Calexico, California); Messages that frame water quality issues in terms of “purity” are more likely to motivate conservatives to support environmental causes. (photo:Calexico New River Committee {CNRC})

Study participants were then told to rate how strongly they felt certain emotions (including ‘disgust’) in response to what they had read. They were also instructed to report how strongly they agreed/disagreed with statements like: “It is important to protect the environment,”, “I believe humans are causing global warming” and “I would support government legislation aimed at protecting the environment.”

The Encouraging Results

Overall, the researchers found that purity-themed messaging (with its corresponding, “repugnant” imagery) prompted conservatives to feel greater levels of revulsion and disgust. These responses, in turn, were highly correlated with an increase in conservatives’ support for protecting the environment.

The findings seem to indicate that ‘re-framing’ of pro-environmental messages in terms of values important to conservatives — values like sanctity of the Earth and protecting the purity of the body — can help shrink the partisan divide on such pressing matters as protecting biodiversity loss, stopping deforestation, and curbing carbon emissions.

Study co-author Robb Willer commented:

“These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines. Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular.” [quote source]

The study “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes” was published earlier this month in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

For more information about this study, please contact: Matthew Feinberg at [email protected]. For a copy of the article “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes” and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at [email protected].

* M. Feinberg conducted the research while at UC Berkeley, but is now a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford University.
** main (named) newspapers used in the study: The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal

Top image: (COTONSVILLE – JULY 4: People protesting on 4th July against wasting of money 4th July 2009 in Cotonsville, USA) Vacclav /


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