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Study says conservatives respond to different kind of environmental messaging

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Conservatives and liberals share the same globe, but vastly different viewpoints on conservation. Image courtesy NASA.

Can we bridge the ideological divide on crucial conservation issues?

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — It’s astounding that environmental issues have become so politically polarized, with liberals generally favoring stronger environmental protection, while conservatives tend to reject efforts to preserve natural resources as government over-reach. Recent debates about global warming and the EPA’s ability to control greenhouse gases are a case in point.

It doesn’t really make sense. Toxic heavy metals in water, air pollution and the loss of biodiversity affect everyone equally and just by the nature of their fundamental philosophy, one would think that conservatives would want to conserve natural resources and the environment.

But new research from psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that conservative view on issues like deforestation and toxic waste may not be as intractable as assumed. It appears those viewpoints can be changed when the messaging about environmental stewardship are shifted to focus on the concepts of  of fending off threats to the “purity” and “sanctity” of Earth and our bodies.

The study found that conservatives tend to more responsive to messages that stress  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.

The study suggests 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 social psychologist 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 New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, 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 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 climate change 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 content analysis 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 environment.

The UC Berkeley research was published Dec. 10) in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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2 Responses

  1. I suppose the psychologists doing the study have not heard of ConservAmerica, formerly known as Republicans for Environmental Protection. There also are other conservative groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership & Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.

    If one pays attention, there is still a strong, traditional, voice for environmental protection within the Republican party. But those who listen to the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and others won’t hear that voice.

    • Point taken, Steve. Surely, there are Republicans who support environmental protection and who respect the environment, no doubt in my mind. I think the point the authors were trying to make is that, in general, the debate about conservation has become politically polarized. While I reported on their finding, I personally don’t think it’s about messaging. I think it’s more about finding common ground around conservation issues.

      By the way, are you the Steve B. who is or was with the search and rescue community?

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