How to talk the environment with someone of either political stripe

By Alayna DeMartini, CFAES Advancement/Marketing and Communications

It seems intuitive: A social media post or an ad about an environmental issue written in a way that appeals to conservative values will likely persuade conservatives.

But more often than not, messages about environmental issues are framed to resonate primarily with liberal-leaning individuals, said Kristin Hurst, a postdoctoral research associate with CFAES’ School of Environment and Natural Resources.

Based on the ‘moral foundations’ theory

“They’re preaching to the choir, but they’re not reaching the conservatives they’re trying to convince,” said Hurst, who researches behavior as it relates to sustainability.

In a recently published study, Hurst and Marc Stern, a professor at Virginia Tech, wanted to see how different written messages from different sources could influence the opinions of conservatives on a contentious issue: the use of gas, coal, and other fossil fuels and its impact on the environment.

The study Hurst conducted with Stern was based on the “moral foundations theory” developed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues in the early 2000s.

The theory is that conservatives tend to judge whether something is right or wrong primarily based on at least five values: harm, fairness, authority, purity, and loyalty. Liberals, by comparison, tend to make decisions about right or wrong based on only the first two: harm and fairness. How fair is the issue? Was any person or thing harmed?

Conservative-leaning messages

In the online survey Hurst and Stern did, one of the presented messages framed the issue of fossil fuel use to appeal to the five values conservatives are said to consider most in making decisions.

“America is built on the pillars of freedom and innovation. Working together, we can move away from our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels. We can cut ties with terrorist nations and reclaim our rightful status as the proud and independent economic leader of the world. … Many patriotic U.S. companies are developing ways of making renewable energy more efficient and affordable. They are creating thousands of jobs in the process.”

Liberal-leaning messages

The second version aimed at fairness and harm, which, according to the moral foundations theory, liberal-leaning individuals tend to consider most.

Corporations have been clinging to fossil fuels, because they have been able to profit by unfairly exploiting our environment. They exclusively reap the rewards while the rest of us suffer the consequences. Jobs in the fossil fuel industry are also dangerous and typically don’t pay well. Transitioning to a green energy economy promises to create thousands of safer jobs with fair wages and will make us more competitive in the global market.”

The researchers found that the first message had significant success in convincing its self-identified conservative survey participants that the increasing use of fossil fuels is a dangerous trend—but only when the message was said to have come from a conservative source, such as a conservative nonprofit organization.

In one experiment, nearly half (49%) of the conservative participants who read the conservatively framed message said to come from a conservative organization responded that they were more likely to support the transition away from fossil fuels after reading the message. That’s compared to only 29% of conservatives who were convinced by the liberally framed message that was said to come from a liberal organization.

“We suggest that crafting environmental messages using language that speaks to the five moral foundations and comes from a trusted conservative source may be the most effective way to reach conservative audiences on environmental issues,” Hurst said.

Interestingly, the conservatively framed version of the message did not alienate liberal-minded individuals who read it—even if the message said that the information came from a conservative organization, according to the study’s results.

Prior research has suggested that messages on environmental issues tend to focus on harm being done and how certain populations are suffering disproportionately, Hurst said. For example, some messages about the danger of plastic landing in oceans focus on the risk to sea turtles and other marine life—appealing to harm and fairness values.

What they often leave out is a focus on values such as authority and loyalty—the notion of protecting one’s own community and natural heritage, starting at home, Hurst said.

“We tend to speak and craft arguments in our own moral language, based on our own convictions, and it’s hard for us to think about how to craft arguments that resonate with people who see the world differently, who have different values.”

Part of the problem is how people view those on the other side of an issue, Hurst said.

“We have a tendency to think, ‘If you don’t agree with me, you’re self-interested or you have bad intentions.’ And that’s not true. People are sincere, for the most part, in their convictions, and those convictions are not necessarily based on false information or self-interest, but rather a different set of values.”

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