Psychological Persuasion

In my last post I wrote about two personality traits (broadly speaking) underlying prejudice: RWA and SDO. Since then I’ve been thinking about the research related to how to reduce prejudice – there is, for example, the contact hypothesis – the well-researched idea that the best way to reduce prejudice between groups is to have the two groups engage in a joint activity. However, there are a number of caveats to that idea – Wikipedia again has a comprehensive overview  – and it’s really not something I know all that much about.

Also, the contact hypothesis is primarily about getting groups to work together – and for the purpose of this blog and its audience, it might be more relevant to know how to work one-on-one with someone who holds views which you may not, ahem, fully agree with, when it comes to sexism or racism or what-have-you.

In the growing field of moral psychology, there is some interesting stuff being done on persuasion which bears on this issue, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to point you to some research about the way liberals and conservatives communicate about social issues. It’s done in US setting, but I’m sure it’d apply in Australia as well.

First, some background: in research on moral psychology – that is, the field investigating the kinds of moral judgments people actually make, not the more normative question of what moral judgments people should make – Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have come up with an influential Five Foundations theory, which shows that moral issues generally fall into five domains: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Loyalty, Authority, Purity/Sanctity. (One issue can be framed using several domains, as will become important later.)

Interestingly, people vary in the extent to which they take each domain into consideration when making moral judgments – and this variation is reliably related to political orientation. Basically, liberals tend to care most about Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations, whereas conservatives care about all five. (Here’s Haidt’s TED talk about the domains.)

Haidt often frames this issue (it seems to me) in a way that suggests that because of this “gap” in moral understanding, moral disagreements between liberals and conservatives are doomed to be intractable. Liberals simply “won’t get” the way conservatives care about loyalty, authority, and purity. I think that’s a bit too pessimistic. It’s probably true that I will never feel moral outrage at “the sanctity of marriage” being “sullied” by the “disgusting gays”. But that doesn’t mean that communicating using the language of loyalty/authority/purity is completely outside the realm of possibility. And, being able to “talk the same language” as a conservative might in fact be enough. Feinberg and Willer [pdf] are two researchers who are investigating moral persuasion, using Haidt’s five domains. They have shown that if a moral issue (any moral issue) is framed using the domain a person cares about, then that person is more likely to be persuaded. Even if the issue is “traditionally” something they’d be against – for example military spending for liberals, or universal health care for conservatives.

So next time you’re arguing with someone who seems to be on the conservative side, think about the three domains loyalty, authority, and purity. Then see if you can build arguments for your side out of those domains… and let me know what happens. Good luck!

Hanne M Watkins is studying the combined Masters/Phd program in Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Her PhD is on the morality of killing in war and she is involved in the Melbourne Moral Psychology Lab.

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One comment

  1. […] process model of prejudice (a very short review by me, with links to better articles, here and here), and about the hypothesis of intergroup contact. I should also have mentioned confirmation bias, […]

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