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

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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.

It's also worth noting that this series of studies follows an earlier paper, exploring an unexpected aspect of what not to do: “Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs.”

“They're both trying to understand what messages will lead people to be more pro-environmental,” Feinberg said. “Why do some people see these messages--the dire messages as we call them, the world coming to an end--and actually go in the opposite direction, they start to believe less in climate change? That one's not necessarily about morality, but it's closely linked.”

According to the earlier study, increased certainty about the threat of global warming has resulted in decreased belief in what the science is saying. One possible explanation is that “information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, and this process ultimately results in decreased willingness to counteract climate change.” The paper reports on two experiments that support that explanation, “suggesting that less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate-change research.” But that was primarily a negative finding: what not to do. The new study is much more encouraging.

Science journalist Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—And Reality), who's devoted most of his career to related issues, is guardedly optimistic with these new results. Asked if he thought that using the purity/sanctity domain to appeal to conservatives held promise, he said, “It would depend a great deal on how that information was used, but yes.”

“Broadly speaking, I do think this is the way we have to break through to people,” he continued. “This is just basically showing that framing works. We knew that. But it shows that it works in conjunction with moral founadations. Moral foundations--that's what I call them, Haidt's thing—provide guidance on how to frame for a particular objective, basically. I'm not at all surprised to find it works.”

However, Mooney warned that translating this to the political realm would be challenging. “You have to remember, it's not a closed information ecosystem when you actually communicate. It is more closed, or completely closed in these experiments.”

More pointedly, he said, “So, Fox News tells conservatives, don't listen to liberals saying this, because they're trying to manipulate your emotions, you can almost forget about it.”

The problem of reaching hardcore Fox viewers brings up yet another moral domain. Before going into it further, here's a brief description of all five domains from the paper itself:

[R]esearchers have found evidence for five fundamental domains of human morality, which they labeled “harm/care” (concerns about the caring for and protection of other people), “fairness/reciprocity” (concerns about treating other people fairly and upholding justice), “in-group/loyalty” (concerns about group membership and loyalty), “authority/respect” (concerns about hierarchy, obedience, and duty), and “purity/sanctity” (concerns about preserving purity and sacredness often characterized by a disgust reaction).

Moral psychology has traditionally focused on the first two of those domains. Perhaps most significantly, they have both been analyzed in terms of a conceptual developmental model based on the pioneering work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to describe the development of reasoning about the physical world. Lawrence Kohlberg first extended Piaget's framework to the fairness/reciprocity domain, which he initially equated with morality in general. But Carol Gilligan's 1982 book, In A Different Voice, argued that women tend to think of morality more in terms of the harm/care domain, which could be analyzed in terms of a similar developmental structure.

Haidt's work on moral foundations highlights three other domains that clearly motivate human behavior across a wide range of cultures, but that might not be fully succesptible to a similar developmental logic. What's more, political liberalism has a history of principled opposition to two of them in their absolutist forms (ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect) even as it has sought to provide rational, empirical foundations for qualified forms of them. (See Locke's Second Treatise on Government, for example.)

Teddy Roosevelt managed to make patriotic progressivism the foundation for the National Park system, so there's clearly some working room to make an ingroup appeal for environmental causes—though the Nazi's “blood and soil” ideology clearly shows there's no reason to expect such appeals to to be particularly liberal over the long run. But purity/sanctity is a relatively neutral moral realm, so far as political liberalism is concerned, as well as being particularly appropriate for describing human interactions with the environment. This is what makes it so ideal for talking about the environment.

Getting back to Mooney's point about Fox News viewers, the in-group appeal to reject liberal manipulations would obviously influence them powerfully. A story about the study on the libertarian Reason magazine's Web site gives the mildest of hints of what might be expected. “How to 'Spin' Conservatives Into Worrying About the Environment” it's titled, with the subhed, “Make them feel disgust, say researchers.”

But despite their intensity, cable news audiences are comparatively small, and it might well be possible to work around them. “I think that these findings are amenable to advertsing campaigns, and it would be very intereting to see someone try that,” Mooney said. “Someone with a real budget could try and take this knowledge and reach a large audience with it, and measure the impact. I think that's a context in which you'd want to try it out and see what happens.”

It's also worth noting that there's already a religious conservative environmental movement, most notably, the Evangelical Environmental Network, which has been around since 1993.

“That movement was not pulled together based on this kind of thinking,” Mooney said. “I've never seen a message to evangelical Christians that's got this moral purity tone to it.... I think that they were just using Biblical language, and that seemed to work.”

But they would be more comfortable speaking in the moral language of purity as well. “That's a pretty safe assumption. They certainly are conservatives and they're not the individualist kind.”

In short, the finding that purity morality can activate conservative concern for the environment is potentially just the beginning of a whole new chapter in environmental politics.

Meanwhile, Feinberg's already writing up his next paper, dealing with experiments that apply different frameworks to other issue areas as well. Conservatives become slightly more supportive of gay marriage within an in-group morality frame of homosexuals "being true Americans and patriots just like the rest of us," while liberals become slightly more supportive of military spending in response to the argument, “It's through the military that the poor and minorities in America get a leg up.”

One thing he's hoping will result from his research is that “people will hopefully understand one another more” and that will help to “minimize the polarization” that's so evident in our politics today.

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