Study finds it’s effective to tailor environmental messages along party lines

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It can be tough to have productive conversations on politically polarizing topics such as moral concern for protecting nature. Thankfully, a recent study offers some help. Researchers from Virginia Tech find that appropriately framing a moral message about the environment is key to helping people with opposing views on these issues see eye-to-eye.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, investigated how two different versions a pro-environmental messages are received by conservatives versus liberals.

“It’s not always the case that the issues are fundamentally incompatible with the other side’s values. It’s more that people on both sides of the political spectrum tend to frame their own issues using the language and arguments that align with the moral convictions of their own group,” says study co-author Kristin Hurst, now a postdoctoral research associate at The Ohio State University, in a press release.

Crafting the perfect environmental message

The researchers first ran a pilot study to identify the most polarizing pro-environmental messages. The assertion that the United States should transition away from fossil fuels as a primary energy source was ultimately chosen as the message. Next, researchers crafted two versions of this message, each with politically-oriented language that would appeal to conservative or liberal audiences.

The two versions of the message were guided by moral foundations theory, which proposes that there are at least five core principles which influence our judgements of right and wrong. According to the theory, conservatives tend to base their judgements on moral principles that emphasize group cohesiveness through loyalty and authority. They also value protecting the sanctity of valued objects, people, places, and beliefs. Outside of these three moral foundations, conservatives share two with liberals: the care and fairness for people as individuals.

Appealing to values

The liberal appeal described the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy as a, “compassionate and equitable choice.” The conservative appeal named the dangerous dependency of the United States on countries linked to terrorism for energy sources (e.g. oil) as a reason to become more competitive in the renewable energy market.

Researchers then presented the messages in two surveys involving 631 participants. The first survey consisted of both liberal and conservative participants, while the second only looked at conservative responses. Additionally, the researchers conducting the study told participants that the source of the message came from either a politically conservative, neutral, or liberal nonprofit organization. The sources were unnamed and described to participants as generic nonprofits that supported traditional conservative or liberal values.

A conservatively framed message

The study reveals that the most effective way to increase conservative support and concern the environment is to frame the conversation with a conservative moral appeal and also say it comes from a conservative source.

“The moral frame alone wasn’t effective. We found that this combination of the conservative moral frame with the conservative message source was key to resonating with more conservatives,” Hurst adds.

The influence of the source for conservative moral judgements on environmental issues is important to understand. It underscores the tractability of enlisting conservative-trusted organizations to coax an opposing opinion on environmental issues into a new way of thinking. It is important to note, however, that the study did not assess the influence on behavior or behavioral intentions, which would have further reaching implications.

“This is not about getting conservatives to think like liberals, but rather changing how we communicate about environmental issues to highlight that caring about the environment is not just a liberal issue – it is also compatible with deeply held conservative values,” the researcher concludes.