While Americans’ political divisions seem wider than ever and conversations between liberals and conservatives more and more strained, sociologists Matt Feinberg and Robb Willer have some advice about how people on different sides of the ideological fence can talk to each other.
It’s based on appealing to people’s values.
“To understand why people talk past one another in America and across ideological lines, it’s helpful to understand that our political divide in this country is undergirded by a deeper moral divide,” says Willer, a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior at Stanford University.
He and Feinberg, a professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, discussed their research on the issue at the Aspen Ideas Festival. One major basis of their findings is that liberals and conservatives operate on a different set of values. Liberals, whose moral values include protecting vulnerable groups, social justice, and equality of outcomes, tend to frame their political arguments based on those values. But such arguments don’t change the minds of conservatives, who develop stances on issues through the lens of patriotism, group loyalty, tradition, and sanctity. And vice versa.
Willer explains it like this: “What we find overwhelmingly is that when people go to persuade somebody, they talk like they’re speaking into a mirror,” reciting all of the reasons they have for their particular position — which, he added, “is intuitive. Moral reasons for our politics are deeply held, and you get so bound up in that that you give value-based reasons. But it’s not very effective for persuasion.”
Not being able to separate one’s political position from one’s underlying values helps to explain why people drift apart ideologically, why people tend to prefer to surround themselves with people who think like they do, and the stark differences between political parties. In other words, a sense of commonality (or not) is a powerful thing.
“The No. 1 thing people look for when they’re joining a group is, do I have the same values,” explains Feinberg. “Not only will that boost self-esteem, but the functioning of the group will depend on sharing these values.”
One big problem the researchers found, however, is that many people (50 percent, according to a Pew poll) believe the other side is immoral if they don’t share their values.
Through experiments, Feinberg and Willer tested this theory of reframing political arguments to align with the other side’s values. So to persuade conservatives to be more sympathetic to environmental protection, they used arguments based on sanctity and purity, that pollution is disgusting, for example. And to see if they could get liberals to support more military spending, instead of framing the argument in patriotic terms, they advanced the idea of the military as an egalitarian institution, helping to level the playing field for poor and disadvantaged people around the world.
And it worked — people were amenable to policies typically aligned with the other side when they aligned with their own values. And, leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Feinberg and Willer even got conservatives and liberals to be less supportive of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, respectively, using values traditionally associated with each side.
Which is to say, there’s hope. Feinberg and Willer’s research has found some evidence that by employing these techniques — perhaps for selfish reasons of political persuasion — people begin to actually understand each other better.
“In order to even begin using moral reframing, to speak to the other side’s moral values, you have to understand them,” explains Feinberg. “You have to perspective-take in the first place, to say, ‘What would I believe if I were them, and how can I speak to that?’ And before you know it, you’re fully taking their perspective, you’re empathizing with them. What we find is you respect the other side more and demonize the other side less.”
Willer adds that it’s the least we owe our fellow Americans, “thinking through their mindset before communicating with them.”
Written by Catherine Lutz, special to the Aspen Ideas Festival