Purity and Danger, Politics and Persuasion

February 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston                       

You’re not going to persuade a conservative by appealing to liberal moral principles.  Tell a Tea Party type that industrial waste harms the environment and should be regulated, you won’t get very far.  But if you appeal to conservative moral principles, you might have more luck.

I’ve been skeptical about Jonathan Haidt’s conservative moral principles – group loyalty, purity, and authority – mostly because they are used to justify practices I find wrong or immoral.  Things like anti-gay legislation, torture, assassination, terrorism, etc.  (an early post about this is here.) 

But a recent experimental study by Robb Willer* shows that the right kind of persuasion can make conservatives a bit more eco-friendly.  The moral principle at issue is Purity.  Participants read a pro-environmental message that was based either on “Harm/Care” or on “Purity/Sanctity” along with photos that matched the appeal. 
  • a destroyed forest of tree stumps, a barren coral reef, and cracked land suffering from drought (Harm)
  • a cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage (Purity)
There was also a Neutral condition: “an apolitical message on the history of neckties.” (Willer has a fine sense of humor.)
                                       
Participants were then asked questions to determine their support for pro-environmental legislation.  



For people who identified themselves as liberal, the type of material they saw – Harm, Purity, or Necktie – made no difference in their environmental position.  Conservatives, as expected, were generally cooler to enviromental legislation, but only in the Neutral and Harm conditions.  Once they were shown the Purity materials, conservatives were as pro-environment as the liberals. 

Other aspects of the conservative mind-set seem to go along with this emphasis on purity:  simplicity rather than complexity and a lower tolerance of ambiguity.  It’s a view that sees the need for clearly marked and rigidly enforced boundaries – the boundaries of the nation, the boundaries of the individual, the boundaries of cognitive categories. 

We can’t know which part of the Purity presentation was most effective, but my money is on that picture of a person drinking contaminated water.  That picture, but more so the broader point of the study, reminded me of another political conservative, Gen. Jack Ripper.  Facing a conflict between Purity (purity of water, purity of essence) and Harm (nuclear war qualifies as harm, doesn’t it?), the choice was a no-brainer.



A minute later Gen Ripper further expounds on fluoridation, amply illustrating this firm-boundaries idea:
It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.
He also explains that he will not allow his own “essence” to escape the boundaries of his body lest he experience 
a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness. . . . Women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.
Gen. Ripper is fictional and exaggerated, but a caricature can reveal quirks and characteristics that are there but usually go unnoticed.  So can a social psych experiment.

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* Willer is in the Sociology department at UC Berkeley. The article is online here, probably behind the Sage paywall.  A Berkeley News Center article about it (which is where I got that glass of water photo) is here.

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