In business, everyone knows that if you want to persuade people to make a deal with you, you have to focus on what they value, not what you do. If you’re trying to sell your car, you emphasize the features of the sale that appeal to the buyer (the reliability and reasonable price of the vehicle), not the ones that appeal to you (the influx of cash).
This rule of salesmanship also applies in political debate — i.e., you should frame your position in terms of the moral values of the person you’re trying to convince. But when it comes to politics, this turns out to be hard to do. We found that people struggled to set aside their reasons for taking a political position and failed to consider how someone with different values might come to support that same position.
In one study, we presented liberals and conservatives with one of two messages in support of same-sex marriage. One message emphasized the need for equal rights for same-sex couples. This is the sort of fairness-based message that liberals typically advance for same-sex marriage. It is framed in terms of a value — equality — that research has shown resonates more strongly among liberals than conservatives. The other message was designed to appeal to values of patriotism and group loyalty, which have been shown to resonate more with conservatives. (It argued that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans” who “contribute to the American economy and society.”)
Liberals showed the same support for same-sex marriage regardless of which message they encountered. But conservatives supported same-sex marriage significantly more if they read the patriotism message rather than the fairness one.
In a parallel experiment, we targeted liberals for persuasion. We presented a group of liberals and conservatives with one of two messages in support of increased military spending. One message argued that we should “take pride in our military,” which “unifies us both at home and abroad.” The other argued that military spending is necessary because, through the military, the poor and disadvantaged “can achieve equal standing,” by ensuring they have “a reliable salary and a future apart from the challenges of poverty and inequality.”
For conservatives, it didn’t matter which message they read; their support for military spending was the same. However, liberals expressed significantly greater support for increasing military spending if they read the fairness message rather than the patriotism one.
If you’re thinking that these reframed arguments don’t sound like ones that conservatives and liberals would naturally be inclined to make, you’re right. In an additional study, we asked liberals to write a persuasive argument in favor of same-sex marriage aimed at convincing conservatives — and we offered a cash prize to the participant who wrote the most persuasive message. Despite the financial incentive, just 9 percent of liberals made arguments that appealed to more conservative notions of morality, while 69 percent made arguments based on more liberal values.
Conservatives were not much better. When asked to write an argument in favor of making English the official language of the United States that would be persuasive to liberals (with the same cash incentive), just 8 percent of conservatives appealed to liberal values, while 59 percent drew upon conservative values.
Why do we find moral reframing so challenging? There are a number of reasons. You might find it off-putting to endorse values that you don’t hold yourself. You might not see a link between your political positions and your audience’s values. And you might not even know that your audience endorses different values from your own. But whatever the source of the gulf, it can be bridged with effort and consideration.
Maybe reframing political arguments in terms of your audience’s morality should be viewed less as an exercise in targeted, strategic persuasion, and more as an exercise in real, substantive perspective taking. To do it, you have to get into the heads of the people you’d like to persuade, think about what they care about and make arguments that embrace their principles. If you can do that, it will show that you view those with whom you disagree not as enemies, but as people whose values are worth your consideration.
Even if the arguments that you wind up making aren’t those that you would find most appealing, you will have dignified the morality of your political rivals with your attention, which, if you think about it, is the least that we owe our fellow citizens.