Environmental Protection: New Research Says It's About Spin

Even here, at the Great Big Awakening or the Sortofpocalypse or whatever it is the Mayans have been dragged in to predicting, still we are divided as a culture. We're sure not getting closer to some kind of unity, and politics is partly to blame. But are divergent political attitudes deeply held beliefs or just the products of language? This was the question for two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who have been studying how messages are shaped by (and shape) morality.

The researchers' new paper, "The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes," explores why conservatives don't view environmental issues the same way as liberals. What they found in three studies is that pro-environmental messages are framed in a way that appeals to liberal morality and not conservative morality — but that conservative attitudes could be changed if the message were reframed.

Robb Willer, associate professor of sociology at Berkeley, who co-wrote the paper with Matthew Feinberg, says the two were interested in how environmental policy became so divisive. He points to Richard Nixon's establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 as evidence that conservative thought once included actual conservation of natural resources. "So in light of this, it's sort of surprising that we find ourselves so deeply polarized on environmental issues," he says.

Willer and Feinberg based their research on previous work which showed that liberals and conservatives respond to different moral categories. From the paper: "Overall, liberals endorse the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity domains more than conservatives do. Conversely, conservatives endorse in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity more than liberals do." Since environmental messages in op-eds and public service announcements are framed in terms of harm and care, it resonates as a moral issue with liberals, but not with conservatives.

So the researchers framed an environmental message in a way that would "feel" moral to a conservative, using "purity-sanctity" as a foundation. They composed fake op-eds with a "harm/care" message — humans are harming the environment and need to protect it — and a "purity/sanctity" message — the earth is contaminated and it's up to us to purify it, along with pictures of dirty water and trash in a forest. Conservatives didn't respond particularly strongly to the "harm/care" message, but, says Willer, "when you presented conservatives with moral arguments based in purity and sanctity, they ended up supporting environmental reform as much as liberals did."

They concluded that "the association between liberalism and environmental concern is not a necessary one," and that if the shape of the message is changed, so too will attitudes.

This raises creepy questions about the difference between moral issues and how they're communicated. Did people hold these beliefs the whole time, or were they influenced to believe based on the language? Is an issue only as good as its spin? This is real "medium and message" stuff, and illustrates either the importance of language or the malleability of people, or both.

"I think this speaks to the dangers and promise of propaganda — that there's ways of presenting issues that are more effective," Willer says. "Strategically reframing an issue ... could be canny moral strategy or a dangerous political weapon."

Something worth keeping in mind as we march toward enlightenment, or obliteration, or whatever.

 
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