As part of the same study, which they published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Feinberg and Willer tried to see if this type of “moral reframing” would be more effective. Previously, they had found that conservatives were more likely to endorse environmental protections when researchers activated their concerns about purity, rather than the more liberal concern about “harm”: A picture of a forest covered in rotting garbage, in other words, performed better with Republicans than a forest of tree stumps. This time, the researchers tested four different hot-button political issues, each time trying to reframe it in terms of the values that the Moral Foundations Theory tells us are more important for the opposite political side. Again, for liberals that’s “harm and fairness (e.g. benevolence, nurturance, equality, social justice),” and for conservatives, “group loyalty, authority, and purity (e.g., patriotism, traditionalism, strictness, religious sanctity).”
First, they had participants read an article that advocated for the support of universal health care, using either a “fairness” argument (“health coverage is a basic human right”), or in terms of “purity” (a high uninsured rate means more “unclean, infected, and diseased Americans”). Conservatives who read the purity argument were much more supportive of universal health care, and, surprisingly, even Obamacare.
So if it’s so easy, why don’t more people—either in studies or in real life—try this strategy?
“We tend to view our moral values as universal,” Feinberg told me. That “there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”
Some people just can’t bring themselves to take that last step, he said, even if they know it’s more effective. And perhaps the reason it’s so difficult is because politics is so deeply intertwined with our personal values. When something is important to us, it’s usually for a reason, and it’s hard to break free of those reasons, even for political expediency’s sake. To do so would take an abundance of empathy, and that’s in short supply all around these days.