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How to Appeal to a Conservative’s Inner Conservationist

The way an environmental appeal is framed can make a big difference in how it is received.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Sam Beebe/Flickr)

In light of the latest alarming research on the likely effects of climate change — goodbye, coastal cities! — it’s more important than ever to form a consensus on how to deal with this enormous challenge. That will require reducing the intense political polarization of the issue, and getting conservatives to join liberals in recognizing the threat.

How? A newly published study presents a surprisingly simple answer: Speak to those on the right in their own language.

“Pro-environmental appeals that match the moral values of conservatives … may have consistent positive effects across an array of environmental attitudes and behaviors,” a research team led by psychologist Christopher Wolsko of Oregon State University-Cascades writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The researchers report that, in a series of experiments, conservatives’ views “shifted substantially in the pro-environmental direction” when the pro-green argument “was portrayed as a matter of obeying authority, defending the purity of nature, and demonstrating one’s patriotism to the United States.”

The study uses as its framework Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes that liberals and conservatives resonate to different moral principles. Those on the left view morality in terms of caring for others and seeking fairness for all, while those on the right are more attuned to such virtues as loyalty and respect.

We need to make owning a Prius patriotic.

Wolsko and his colleagues set out to discover whether utilizing those insights could help create more effective calls to environmental action.

In their first experiment, 185 participants (students at a community college in the Pacific Northwest) began by filling out a survey designed to determine their political orientation. They then read one of three versions of a pro-environment argument.

One version focused on the moral foundations of fairness/caring, reading in part: “Show your love for all of humanity, and the world in which we live, by helping to care for our vulnerable natural environment.” Another was short and nonspecific.

The third version addressed the moral foundations of purity/loyalty/respect, reading in part: “Show your love for your country by joining the fight to protect the purity of America’s natural environment. Take pride in the American tradition of performing one’s civic duty by taking responsibility for yourself and the land you call home.”

Afterwards, participants answered a series of questions regarding their perceptions of the seriousness of climate change, and reported how likely it was they would engage in a series of conservation-related behaviors.

The researchers found “the prototypical political polarity” in the responses of those who read the first two versions of the statement. But among those who read the third version, which appealed to patriotism and tradition, “participants across the political spectrum had relatively strong, and statistically equivalent, pro-environmental attitudes.”

In a follow-up study featuring 187 participants recruited online, those results were replicated, with one additional finding: The “patriotic” version of the statement prompted conservatives to pledge to donate to the Environmental Defense Fund at a higher rate than liberals. This reflected the fact they felt the request came from someone who shared their values.

It all suggests that, for an environmental appeal to succeed, “it is immensely important to promote inclusivity and tolerance of multiple moral and ideological frameworks,” the researchers conclude.

The results suggest too many environmental groups are staffed by left-leaning people who craft language that appeals to their fellow liberals — but no one else. Creating appeals that address the concerns of conservatives could broaden these organizations’ support, and help create a unified effort to do what it takes to avoid an environmental catastrophe.

Driving a hybrid car is currently considered cool. But we need to make owning a Prius patriotic.