A major challenge is persuading members of the public with very different worldviews to take actions aimed at the common good, such as recycling. An appeal that works for a conservative might not work on a liberal, and vice versa. What then do we know about ideology, persuasion, and going green?
People Differ In What They Think Matters
A 2013 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research outlines how to create appeals to liberals and conservatives to go green. This is a worthy aim and, as such, I welcome the work. It seems to me true that, like in many places, the US seems to have communities that lack shared goals. Given this, when you have a goal that you want everyone to buy into how can you tailor your messages to divergent groups?
Before reporting the results I would note that I have two major caveats with the approach.
Firstly, the authors use ideas similar to Jonathan Haidt’s work on the way liberals and conservatives see morality differently, see here. The article’s authors start with the idea that liberals care more about individuality, fairness, and empathy. Conservatives care more about duty, authority, and self-discipline.
Obviously, this is clearly a simplification. (To be fair all models are simplifications so this isn’t a strong criticism). My worry is that these ideas don’t really tell us enough to be meaningful. Who do liberals empathize with and who do conservatives follow? I know plenty of liberals who lack empathy for those not like them and who also love to follow authority. Conversely, whose authority do conservatives follow? There are plenty of US conservatives who don’t seem to believe in scientific authority but do seem to care passionately about other types of authority.
People are complex. I worry that it is easy to develop stereotypes that we all play along with. Liberals and conservatives all accept the simple description of themselves as there is much to admire in both stereotypes. Still, all of us are a confusing mess of different ideas, and our stereotypes sometimes just create more questions than they answer.
Who Stands For What?
I must confess the last few years’ politics have left me confused about what anyone stands for. Many liberals have wanted to abolish a vital public service and decided anti-semitism wasn’t a big deal all while promoting inherited wealth. On the other hand, many conservatives decided that rule of law wasn’t really that important, taking responsibility for your children is no longer a key family value, and businesses weren’t to be trusted. (This isn’t just a US thing, Boris Johnson is the best epitome of such ‘conservatives’. Note his colorful response to the concerns of business about Brexit which illustrates the point, see here).
So I, for one, am nervous about any grand categorizations of liberals and conservatives. This is especially true as experimental stimuli inevitably have a load going on that isn’t part of the manipulation. For example, both the individualizing (liberal) and binding (conservative) appeal used the term ‘impurities’. In other research, the idea of impurities is supposed to be catnip for conservatives, the people the individualizing appeal isn’t supposed to work for. Why then use that term at all? That said, I appreciate to get their work published the authors needed a theoretical hook to hang their hats on so let’s run with liberals=individualism and conservatives=group needs.
A second caveat is the method of analysis. The authors use surveys with intentions as the dependent variable for most of their analysis. Measuring people’s intentions to do something has obvious challenges, especially in the field of sustainability research. Given sustainable actions are often pro-social actions readers rightly might worry that people will say they intend to do a lot of things that they don’t do.
To their credit, to get over this problem, the authors teamed up with a local government in Lexington, Kentucky. They tested the amount of recycling after receiving messages. Did more get recycled with the messages that were predicted to be more effective? The piece was published so, of course, the answer is yes.
As with any field test, this is pretty messy. For example, if I understood correctly only 113 of 500 targeted households did everything they had to in order for the researchers to have the necessary data. Still, the results look promising and nothing in a field test is ever perfect. I’d largely say the authors gave it a good go and should be applauded for that. Still, no one should believe that we now know everything about tailoring effective recycling messages to liberals and conservatives.
Ideology, Persuasion, And Going Green
What then did the authors find about ideology, persuasion, and going green? Reassuringly, they found that their tailored appeals worked much better with the right audience. So the liberals expressed much more intention to recycle after the individualizing appeal, e.g., “Your actions can help care for others…”. Meanwhile, the conservatives expressed much more intention to recycle after the binding appeal, e.g., “Your actions can help us do our civic duty…”.
we developed tailored persuasive messages that appealed to the individualizing foundations for liberals, based on fairness and avoiding harm to others, and the binding foundation for conservatives, based on duty and an obligation to adhere to authority. We found that these congruent appeals significantly affected consumers’ acquisition, usage, and recycling intentions and behaviors.Kidwell et al. (2013), page 362
If anything, this is better than it seems. The authors also found evidence that the participants not only intended to recycle more but also said that they would buy some CFLs and turn off the taps.
Why? They looked at what mediated the intentions. (This is just a posh way of saying what links the appeal to the reported intentions). Enhanced processing fluency did it. You see an appeal that is tailored to you, you find it easier to process fluently, and so you say you’ll do whatever it suggests.
I like that this paper tackles an important issue. It isn’t the last word on the subject but then what research paper is? (Mine certainly haven’t been). It is good to think about how we might persuade people of different world views to go green.
For more on sustainability see here.
Read: Blair Kidwell, Adam Farmer, and David M. Hardesty. “Getting liberals and conservatives to go green: Political ideology and congruent appeals.” Journal of Consumer Research 40, no. 2 (2013): 350-367.