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“Right” words found to inspire environmental care in conservatives

Dec. 11, 2012
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Peo­ple who de­scribe them­selves as con­ser­va­tives tend to wor­ry or care less about the en­vi­ron­ment than their lib­er­al coun­ter­part­s—but there’s a way to spark their in­ter­est, psy­chol­o­gists say. Use words asso­ciated with con­serv­a­tive, re­li­gious mor­als, like “pu­r­ity” and “sanct­ity.”

And show pic­tures of ac­tu­al pol­lu­tion, not just dam­aged wil­der­ness.

Such lines of per­sua­sion, re­search­ers sug­gested, change more minds than the tree-hugger who pounds lib­er­al themes, hec­tor­ing you about “sus­tain­abil­ity” or—God for­bid?—“mother Earth.”

In new re­search, the psy­chol­o­gists found that they could stir en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern in self-identified, Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives by show­ing them ar­ti­cles de­fin­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal threats in terms of the “pu­r­ity” and “sanct­ity” of Earth and our bod­ies. Pho­tos of smoggy ­ci­ties, gar­bage-strewn woods and filthy wa­ter filled out the read­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ence.

“These find­ings of­fer the pros­pect of pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal per­sua­sion across par­ty lines,” said study co-au­thor Robb Will­er of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, co-au­thor of a re­port on the find­ings pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence. “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.”

Will­er and lead au­thor Mat­thew Fein­berg, now at Stan­ford Uni­vers­ity in Cal­i­for­nia, an­a­lyzed more than 200 opin­ion pieces from such news­pa­pers as The New York Times, USA To­day and The Wall Street Jour­nal. They found the pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal ar­gu­ments were most of­ten pitched in terms of mor­al obliga­t­ions to care about na­ture and pro­tect it, a theme that res­onates with lib­er­als.

Draw­ing on re­search on mor­al founda­t­ions, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors guessed con­ser­va­tives might re­spond more to ar­gu­ments stress­ing such prin­ci­ples as pu­r­ity, pat­ri­ot­ism, and rev­er­ence for high­er au­thor­ity.

The re­search­ers surveyed 187 adults, re­cruited via sev­er­al U.S. Craigslist web­sites. They were asked to rate their own po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy from “ex­tremely lib­er­al” to “ex­tremely con­serv­a­tive.” Re­sponses in­di­cat­ed lib­er­als were more prone to view­ing sus­tain­abil­ity as a mor­al is­sue.

Next, the sci­en­tists an­a­lyzed pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal videos on YouTube and more than 200 opin­ion ar­ti­cles, sort­ing them un­der the themes of “har­m/care,” which they ex­pected to res­o­nate more with lib­er­als, and “pu­r­ity/­sanct­ity,” which they pre­dicted would ap­peal more to con­ser­va­tives. They found that most pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sages leaned strongly to­ward lib­er­al themes.

Fi­nal­ly, 308 men and wom­en, again re­cruited via Craigslist, were ran­domly as­signed to read one of three ar­ti­cles. The harm/care-themed ar­ti­cle de­scribed the en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion wreaked by hu­mans and pitched pro­tection of the en­vi­ron­ment as a mor­al obliga­t­ion. Im­ages ac­com­pa­nying the text were of a for­est with tree stumps, a bar­ren cor­al reef, and drought-cracked land, con­sid­ered more typ­i­cal of the vi­su­als pro­mot­ed by pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal groups.

The pu­r­ity/­sanct­ity-themed ar­ti­cle stressed how pol­lu­tion has con­tam­i­nated Earth and peo­ple’s bod­ies, and ar­gued for clean­ing up and pu­rifying the en­vi­ron­ment. To en­hance those themes and “elicit dis­gust,” re­search­ers said, ac­com­pa­nying im­ages showed a per­son drink­ing filthy wa­ter, a ­city un­der a cloud of pol­lu­tion, and a for­est full of gar­bage. The neu­tral ar­ti­cle talked about the his­to­ry of neck­ties.

Par­ti­ci­pants were then asked to rate how strongly they felt cer­tain emo­tions, in­clud­ing dis­gust, in re­sponse to what they’d read. Next, they re­ported how strongly they agreed or disa­greed with such state­ments as “It is im­por­tant to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment,” “I would sup­port gov­ern­ment leg­isla­t­ion aimed at pro­tecting the en­vi­ron­ment,” and “I be­lieve hu­mans are caus­ing glob­al warm­ing.” Pu­r­ity-themed mes­sage were found to trig­ger dis­gust in con­ser­va­tives, in turn in­creas­ing their sup­port for pro­tecting the en­vi­ron­ment.


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People who describe themselves as conservatives tend to worry or care less about the environment than their liberal counterparts—but there’s a way to spark their interest, psychologists say. Use words like “purity” and “sanctity” that call to mind conservative, religious morals. And show pictures of actual pollution, not just damaged wilderness. Such lines of persuasion, researchers suggested, change more minds than the tree-hugger who pounds liberal themes, hectoring you about “sustainability” or—God forbid?—”mother Earth.” In new research, the psychologists found that they could stir environmental concern in self-identified, American conservatives by showing them articles defining environmental threats in terms of the “purity” and “sanctity” of Earth and our bodies. Photos of smoggy cities, garbage-strewn woods and filthy water filled out the readers’ experience. “These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines,” said study co-author Robb Willer of the University of California Berkeley, co-author of a report on the findings published this week in the journal Psychological Science. “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.” Willer and lead author Matthew Feinberg, now at Stanford University in California, analyzed more than 200 opinion pieces published in such newspapers as The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. They found the pro-environmental arguments were most often pitched in terms of moral obligations to care about nature and protect it, a theme that resonates with liberals. Drawing on research on moral foundations, the investigators guessed conservatives might respond more to arguments stressing such principles as purity, patriotism, and reverence for higher authority. The researchers surved 187 adults, recruited via several U.S. Craigslist websites. They were asked to rate their own political ideology from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.” Responses indicated liberals were more prone to viewing sustainability as a moral issue. Next, the scientists analyzed pro-environmental videos on YouTube and more than 200 opinion articles, sorting them under the themes of “harm/care,” which they expected to resonate more with liberals, and “purity/sanctity,” which they predicted would appeal more to conservatives. They found that most pro-environmental messages leaned strongly toward liberal themes. Finally, 308 men and women, again recruited via Craigslist, were randomly assigned to read one of three articles. The harm/care-themed article described the environmental destruction wreaked by humans and pitched protection of the environment as a moral obligation. Images accompanying the text were of a forest with tree stumps, a barren coral reef, and drought-cracked land, which are more typical of the visuals promoted by pro-environmental groups. The purity/sanctity-themed article stressed how pollution has contaminated Earth and people’s bodies, and argued for cleaning up and purifying the environment. To enhance those themes and “elicit disgust,” researchers said, accompanying images showed a person drinking filthy water, a city under a cloud of pollution, and a forest full of garbage. The neutral article talked about the history of neckties. Participants were then asked to rate how strongly they felt certain emotions, including disgust, in response to what they’d read. Next, they reported how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as “It is important to protect the environment,” “I would support government legislation aimed at protecting the environment,” and ‘I believe humans are causing global warming.” Purity-themed message were found to trigger disgust in conservatives, in turn increasing their support for protecting the environment.