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 environmental 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 in Dr. Strangelove.  Facing a conflict between Purity (purity of water, purity of essence) and Harm (nuclear war does qualify as harm, doesn’t it?), the choice was a no-brainer.

He has ordered US planes to drop nuclear bombs on the USSR and has closed off the base to communications from outside, including the President, who is desperately trying to get him to call back the planes.

Gen. Ripper explains to his adjutant, Major Mandrake (Peter Sellers). I have edited the script, removing Mandrake’s responses

Have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?
Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?
Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?

A minute later Gen Ripper further expounds on fluoridation, amply illustrating this firm-boundaries idea:


Gen. Ripper is fictional and exaggerated, but a caricature can reveal real quirks and characteristics that usually go unnoticed. So can a social psych experiment.

* 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.

No comments: