Conservatives can be persuaded to care more about the environment, study finds

by Yasmin Anwar
Study finds that conservatives can be moved to support pro-environmental policies when messages emphasize fending off threats to the purity of our bodies.

When it comes to climate change, deforestation and toxic waste, the assumption has been that conservative views on these topics are intractable. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that such viewpoints can be changed after all, when the messages about the need to be better stewards of the land are couched in terms of fending off threats to the "purity" and "sanctity" of Earth and our bodies.

A UC Berkeley study has found that while people who identified themselves as conservatives tend to be less concerned about the environment than their liberal counterparts, their motivation increased significantly when they read articles that stressed the need to "protect the purity of the environment" and were shown such repellant images as a person drinking dirty water, a forest filled with garbage, and a city under a cloud of smog.

Published today (Dec. 10) in the online issue of the journal , the findings indicate that reframing pro-environmental rhetoric according to values that resonate strongly with conservatives can reduce partisan polarization on ecological matters.

"These findings offer the prospect of pro-environmental persuasion across party lines," said Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley and coauthor of the study. "Reaching out to conservatives in a respectful and persuasive way is critical, because large numbers of Americans will need to support significant environment reforms if we are going to deal effectively with climate change, in particular."

Researchers conducted a content analysis of more than 200 op-eds published in such newspapers as The , USA Today and The , and found the pro-environmental arguments were most often pitched in terms of moral obligations to care about the natural environment and protect it from harm, a theme that resonates more powerfully with liberals, they added, than with conservatives.

They hypothesized that conservatives would be more responsive to environmental arguments focused on such principles as purity, patriotism and reverence for a higher authority. In their study, the authors specifically tested the effectiveness of arguments for protecting the purity of the environment. They said the results suggest they were on the right track:

"When individuals view protecting the environment as a moral issue, they are more likely to recycle and support government legislation to curb carbon emissions," said Matthew Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study which he conducted while at UC Berkeley.

Scientific consensus on the existence of warming global land and ocean temperatures – attributed in large part to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions – continues to grow and influence public opinion, especially with such extreme weather events as Hurricane Sandy. A recent Rasmussen poll reported that 68 percent of Americans view as a "serious problem," compared to a 2010 Gallup poll in which 48 percent of Americans said they thought global warming was exaggerated.

In the first experiment, 187 men and women recruited via several U.S. Craigslist websites rated their political ideology on a scale of "extremely liberal" to "extremely conservative." They then rated the morality of such activities as recycling a water bottle versus throwing it in the garbage. The results of that experiment, and a similar one conducted on 476 college undergraduates, showed that liberals are more prone to viewing sustainability as a moral issue than are conservatives.

Next, researchers conducted a of pro-environmental videos on YouTube and more than 200 op-eds in national newspapers, sorting them under the themes of "harm/care," which they expected to resonate more with liberals, and "purity/sanctity," which they predicted would appeal more to conservatives. They found that most pro-environmental messages leaned strongly toward liberal moral concerns.

In the last experiment, 308 men and women, again recruited via Craigslist, were randomly assigned to read one of three articles. The harm/care-themed article described the destruction wreaked on the environment by humans and pitched protection of the environment as a moral obligation. Images accompanying the text were of a forest with tree stumps, a barren coral reef and drought-cracked land, which are more typical of the visuals promoted by pro-environmental groups.

The purity/sanctity-themed article stressed how pollution has contaminated Earth and people's bodies, and argued for cleaning up and purifying the environment. To enhance those themes and elicit disgust, the accompanying images showed a person drinking filthy water, a city under a cloud of pollution and a forest full of garbage. The neutral article talked about the history of neckties.

Participants were then asked to rate how strongly they felt certain emotions, including disgust, in response to what they'd read. Next, they reported how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as "It is important to protect the environment," "I would support government legislation aimed at protecting the environment" and 'I believe humans are causing global warming."

Overall, the study found that the purity-themed message inspired conservatives to feel higher levels of disgust, which in turn increased their support for protecting the .

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JakeJ
3 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2012
Perhaps next the college could do a study concerning the fact that American liberals are responsible for nearly all violent crime in America. If you think about it long enough you'll realize why. And it's a fact, no matter how much you hate it.

Or why "liberals," while being quite tight with their own money (as confirmed by study after study...red states give the most to charity), desire the government to take from some at the point of a gun and give to others "to make things more decent" according to their own moral code. That would be quite interesting I believe.

I could come up with any number of ideas...but they'll never happen because the colleges are bastions of leftism and are biased in both study subject choice and study methods. Now academia has decided that "conservatives" are to be studied and dissected like a previously undiscovered jungle tribe. By our betters, you see.
Birger
5 / 5 (1) Dec 11, 2012
Troll is boring.

Actually, conservation of the environment *used* to be a Republican concern back in the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Then the lobbies for mining or forestry interests started framing conservation as an infringement on "liberty" (and it is, in the same way laws against vandalism and theft infringe upon our liberty to do whatever we want). If psychology can provide a way to open people's minds for regarding the environment as the precious, vulnerable resource it is, then hooray for psychology.
ab3a
not rated yet Dec 16, 2012
The whole premise behind this idiotic article is flawed. Liberal leftists like to charge the right wing conservatives with "not respecting the environment" and "destroying our future" and much worse. It has been repeated for so long that most are starting to believe this nonsense.

The truth is that there is significant common ground between both extreme views. Even Newt Gingrich has many things to say in Contract with the Earth (I don't always agree with him, but the general direction of this book is not a bad one). Where conservatives differ is in their methods and their priorities.

I write this as a gun-owning, GOP voting individual; and member of a local Isaac Walton League. We may not buy in to much of the nonsense from the left, but we do care about the environment. We think of it as a long-term investment. And we put our money where our mouth is.
ab3a
not rated yet Dec 16, 2012
This article is about politics, not psychology.

...Actually, conservation of the environment *used* to be a Republican concern back in the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Then the lobbies for mining or forestry interests started framing conservation as an infringement on "liberty" (and it is, in the same way laws against vandalism and theft infringe upon our liberty to do whatever we want). If psychology can provide a way to open people's minds for regarding the environment as the precious, vulnerable resource it is, then hooray for psychology.


It still is. Have you ever been to an Isaac Walton League meeting? They do stream cleanups, they help with wildlife management, they breed disease resistant trees, and many more things.

To those who think the GOP doesn't care about the environment, get a clue. We may not agree with what passes for "environmentalism" but if you call it conservation, you'll find many among our ranks who may well know and care more than you do.