Communication Skills Blog

An article published last month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin described a series of experiments to determine how people incorporate moral arguments into political discussions and how effective these arguments are. The experimenters relied on previous research that showed liberal morality emphasizes protection from harm and fairness, while conservative morality emphasizes loyalty, authority, and purity.

Without getting into the weeds of their experimental design, I’ll just say they asked a group of liberals to persuade conservatives to a liberal proposition using conservative values and a group of conservatives to persuade liberals to a conservative position using liberal values. What they found was that overwhelming majorities of both liberals and conservatives failed to make the cases they were asked to make. The experimenters could not tell whether people would not make such arguments or could not make them. All they could say for certain was that the proportion of people who successfully made what we might call “cross-over” appeals was very small.

In a series of subsequent experiments, the researchers made their own arguments for a series of liberal and conservative propositions. In one of the experiments, for example, they offered a case for national healthcare based on liberal values (“access to healthcare is a right”) as well as one based on conservative values (“sick people are disgusting”). They also made cases for high levels of military spending: one based on liberal values (“the military increases fairness in society”) and one based on the conservative values of authority and loyalty. They presented each of the four cases to a different audience and measured how liberal or conservative each audience member was as well as how much each was persuaded by the case.

Conservatives who received a conservative proposition supported by conservative values and liberals who received a liberal proposition supported by liberal values remained largely unchanged, since they were just receiving familiar arguments. But both liberals and conservatives who received cross-over appeals were moved by the arguments. The effects were moderate, but it is undeniable the researchers made the audiences measurably more supportive of “opposite camp” propositions by incorporating the values of the audience members.

This research is particularly meaningful in an election season that everyone acknowledges as the most polarized we’ve seen in living memory. Political arguments are everywhere, but nobody is being persuaded. All we’re seeing is a hardening of positions. That is because argument is all about using logic, reasoning, or intimidation to “win.” Persuasion, on the other hand, is all about using communication to raise the receptivity of an audience (of one or a thousand) and then helping them find a way to embrace your idea. You do this partly by modeling your commitment to and passion for the idea, partly by packaging the idea in compelling language or images, and mostly by framing the idea in terms of the audience’s values.

If you want to make a moral argument, the best thing you can do is not to make an argument at all. If you really care about persuading someone to adopt a moral proposition, start with their moral principles rather than yours, and frame the argument to appeal to those principles. Don’t let your dialogue be about winning or losing. Let it be about communicating. Want to learn more? Consider Communispond’s Persuasive Dialogue™ program.


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