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Study Suggests 'Moral Purity' May Overcome Right-Wing Resistance to Environmental Science

Feelings of disgust may be the key to saving the planet from global warming.

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

Could feelings of disgust be the key to saving the planet from global warming? Strange as it might seem, the answer may be yes.

Concern over environmental harm is disproportionately a liberal phenomena, but concern over violating the purity and sanctity of nature cuts across ideological lines. What's more, it's not an abstract concern. Violations of morality of the purity/sanctity kind are linked to a visceral disgust.

This isn't just idle speculation. A new series of studies suggests a potential way out of the polarized gridlock that's crippled our national response to the threat of global warming. " The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes," by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, published in Psychological Science in December, studied the impact of framing environmental communication in terms of different moral frameworks, and concluded that messaging based on the moral value of purity, which appeals primarily to conservatives, can help bridge the ideological divide on environmental issues—including global warming.

“I've always been interested in environmental behavior, environmental attitudes, in general,” said lead author Matthew Feinberg. “Especially why people recycle, and care about climate change, while others care not so much.” It seemed to be connected to political ideology, but that raised the question of why.

“I started to think about that, and something that's been popular in the literature lately, moral psychology, the theory of different foundations of morality,” developed by Jon Haidt. “The basic idea is there are five foundations of morality” and possibly a sixth that Haidt hasn't published about yet. Harm/care and purity/sanctity are two of those domains.

The final experiment in the paper showed polarization between liberals and conservatives when exposed to messages focused on the harm and destruction humans are causing to the environment, and how important it is for people to protect it. But that polarization largely disappeared when they were exposed to messages focused on how polluted and contaminated the environment has become and how important it is for people to clean and purify the environment.

In addition to written op-ed style material, subjects were shown pictures reinforcing the two different moral frames. In the first, harm/care framework, they were shown pictures of a destroyed forest littered with tree stumps, a barren coral reef and cracked land suffering from drought. In the second, purity/sanctity framework (whose violation tends to trigger disgust), they were shown a cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage. In the later case, there was virtually no liberal/conservative gap so far as general environmental attitudes were concerned, and the gap was significantly reduced on the issue of global warming.

Asked to summarize, Feinberg said, “Environmental attitudes and behavior are linked with morality, and then the question is why are they linked with some people's morality and not others, and it seems this idea about the five foundations is part of it, and that liberals and conservatives seem to differ on their [moral foundations], and therefore they might differ on perceptions of the environment being a moral issue.... But all is not lost if you're pro-environmental, there are ways to cater to the morality of conservatives that will likely to get them to be more pro-environmental in their attitudes.”

The initial experiments reported in the paper first showed that liberals view the environment in moral terms, while conservatives do not, and that this helped explain the connection between ideology and environmental attitudes. Next, an analysis of newspaper op-eds and public-service announcements showed the dominance of harm/care moral concerns in existing environmental discourse. These findings laid the groundwork for the final experiment, testing the impact of introducing the purity/sanctity moral framework.

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