Moral messages transcend politics

Moral messages transcend politics

In June, Climate Access blogged about the Pope’s powerful moral message on climate change. This blog was based on social science research that supports the use of a moral frame emphasizing our role as stewards. Climate Access has recommended highlighting the burdens on future generations without placing blame, instead showing how this moment is an opportunity to be proactive.  The research, thus far, has suggested it is a smart move to focus on protecting future generations and other moral arguments based around the audience’s values. 

Or is it?

A recent study by Severson and Coleman from Florida State University, found no empirical support that morality frames significantly reduce the opinion gap in climate change policy support between political liberals and conservatives. In other words, the morality frame does not work any better on conservatives (as many currently assume it might) than it does on liberals. The study tested the use of different frames and their influence on overall support of climate policy in two groups: political conservatives and liberals. Certain frames, such as science, secular morality and economic equity did increase support for climate policy. However, only the positive science and the economic equity frame appeared to reduce the effect of political ideology on support.

The research design incorporated two moral value frames, secular and religious in their survey experiment. The secular frame emphasized duty to one another, concern for future generations and sanctity of human and non-human life while the religious frame emphasized the stewardship of humans over God’s creation. They also looked at a science frame (both positive and negative) along with an economic frame (both equity and efficiency). Based on existing research, the authors expected the results to indicate that conservatives would be more responsive to the morality frame to support climate policy. However, as stated above, this research doesn’t support that claim.

So now, what? What does this mean for crafting engagement campaigns with a moral frame to influence a conservative audience?

It depends. First off, the secular frame did increase overall climate policy support among each group. It just didn’t work any better on conservatives versus liberals. Also, despite ideological polarization, some of the frames did overcome the gap in opinions from liberals and conservatives (Economic Equity and Positive Science). The study suggests that the ideological divide may not be “as wide nor as deep as suspected” and could be “weakened by the manipulation of a few words”. At the very least, the research reinforces the significance of campaign framing and knowing your audience.