If you’ve ever tried to convince an opinionated relative to shift a political opinion, you were probably doing it wrong (and it probably didn’t work).
“The way people typically approach political persuasion is that they talk about their own reasons for holding given political positions,” says Robb Willer, a Stanford University professor who studies the effectiveness of how political arguments are framed. “But this neglects the fact that the person you’re talking with often has very different moral values, very different psychological makeup, and a very different social background.”
We reached out to Willer to learn how his theories might apply to a particular problem: how a liberal might try to persuade a conservative to support immigration, at a time when 59% of Republicans think that dealing with immigration should be a top priority for the new administration, and GOP leaders are praising Trump’s plans to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
A series of Willer’s studies suggest that persuasion is rooted in empathy: If you want to begin to change someone’s mind, you should make your argument from an understanding of their values, not your own. The approach is called moral reframing.
In the studies, Willer found that conservatives are more likely to begin to accept liberal policies such as national health insurance or same-sex marriage if they’re framed in terms of conservative values like patriotism and moral purity. Liberals are more likely to begin to support conservative policies like military spending if they hear an argument about how the military helps reduce inequality–an argument rooted in fairness, a key liberal value.
Previous researchers have found that liberals value fairness, protection from harm, and empathy more than conservatives; conservatives, on the other hand, tend to more deeply value loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.
In the case of immigration, a conservative-friendly argument might appeal to patriotism and loyalty.
“One could imagine it emphasizing that immigrants are patriotic Americans loyal to our country, productive members of society, and people like yourself,” Willer says. “When we have seen divisive messages about immigration that have been effective they have very often been the opposite of that–portraying immigrants as disloyal, very different, and not particularly American. You can see why that would be resonant with someone who values group loyalty and patriotism.”
Other messages could potentially be strengthened by adding a moral framing. If someone tries to make a pro-immigration argument based on the conservative love of the free market, they might say that small businesses should have the right to hire whoever they choose, including immigrants. That argument might be stronger if it emphasizes more deeply held conservative values–the employer’s liberty, choice, and freedom.
Arguments based in liberal values, for someone trying to persuade a conservative, won’t work. “If there are well-worn arguments for a policy position, then the person you’re talking to you probably already heard them,” he says. “And if they don’t agree with you when you start the conversation it probably means that they did not find those positions convincing. You’re probably going to be better served using some new arguments for your position, and ideally, one that suits that person’s psychology and background.”
There are several reasons why people tend to make arguments based on their own values. In some cases, they may not know that the person they’re trying to convince has different values. In other cases–especially if someone is particularly idealistic and not pragmatic–they might not be willing to embrace other reasons for their political position, even temporarily.
It’s also hard to craft a moral argument that will resonate. “It requires a lot of thought,” Willer says. “It’s very challenging. And so it shouldn’t be in any way surprising that someone at Thanksgiving dinner with their uncle may struggle to come up with a brand-new kind of argument than any they’ve ever heard before. It’s just hard to do.”
One place to start, he says, is by reading as much from the opposing end of the spectrum as you can, from op-ed writers to the language that conservatives or liberals use to make arguments to each other on Reddit or Facebook.
“I think one of the big problems is we don’t do that,” he says. “For liberals, we tend to not read the conservative op-ed writers, and vice versa for conservatives. But by doing that we’re sort of training ourselves to be really, really bad at speaking to someone with different values.”
While the studies showed somewhat modest effects from arguments that used moral reframing–that is, conservatives didn’t fully embrace ideas like same-sex marriage, but just moved left of the midpoint–Willer says that it’s enough of an effect to be important.
“If you do political research, as we do, these effects look pretty good,” he says.