New research shows how to make effective political arguments, Stanford sociologist says

Stanford sociologist Robb Willer finds that an effective way to persuade people in politics is to reframe arguments to appeal to the moral values of those holding opposing positions.

Robb Willer portrait

In a study, Robb Willer found that the most effective arguments are ones in which the speaker finds a new way to connect a political position to the target audience’s moral values. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

In today’s American politics, it might seem impossible to craft effective political messages that reach across the aisle on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, national health insurance and military spending. But, based on new research by Stanford sociologist Robb Willer, there’s a way to craft messages that could lead to politicians finding common ground.

“We found the most effective arguments are ones in which you find a new way to connect a political position to your target audience’s moral values,” Willer said.

While most people’s natural inclination is to make political arguments grounded in their own moral values, Willer said, these arguments are less persuasive than “reframed” moral arguments.

To be persuasive, reframe political arguments to appeal to the moral values of those holding the opposing political positions, said Matthew Feinberg, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, who co-authored the study with Willer. Their work was published recently online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Such reframed moral appeals are persuasive because they increase the apparent agreement between a political position and the target audience’s moral values, according to the research, Feinberg said.

In fact, Willer pointed out, the research shows a “potential effective path for building popular support in our highly polarized political world.” Creating bipartisan success on legislative issues – whether in Congress or in state legislatures – requires such a sophisticated approach to building coalitions among groups not always in agreement with each other, he added.

Different moral values

Feinberg and Willer drew upon past research showing that American liberals and conservatives tend to endorse different moral values to different extents. For example, liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with values like group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.

They then conducted four studies testing the idea that moral arguments reframed to fit a target audience’s moral values could be persuasive on even deeply entrenched political issues. In one study, conservative participants recruited via the Internet were presented with passages that supported legalizing same-sex marriage.

Conservative participants were ultimately persuaded by a patriotism-based argument that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.”

On the other hand, they were significantly less persuaded by a passage that argued for legalized same-sex marriage in terms of fairness and equality.

Feinberg and Willer found similar results for studies targeting conservatives with a pro-national health insurance message and liberals with arguments for high levels of military spending and making English the official language of the United States. In all cases, messages were significantly more persuasive when they fit the values endorsed more by the target audience.

“Morality can be a source of political division, a barrier to building bi-partisan support for policies,” Willer said. “But it can also be a bridge if you can connect your position to your audience’s deeply held moral convictions.”

Values and framing messages

“Moral reframing is not intuitive to people,” Willer said. “When asked to make moral political arguments, people tend to make the ones they believe in and not that of an opposing audience – but the research finds this type of argument unpersuasive.”

To test this, the researchers conducted two additional studies examining the moral arguments people typically make. They asked a panel of self-reported liberals to make arguments that would convince a conservative to support same-sex marriage, and a panel of conservatives to convince liberals to support English being the official language of the United States.

They found that, in both studies, most participants crafted messages with significant moral content, and most of that moral content reflected their own moral values, precisely the sort of arguments their other studies showed were ineffective.

“Our natural tendency is to make political arguments in terms of our own morality,” Feinberg said. “But the most effective arguments are based on the values of whomever you are trying to persuade.”

In all, Willer and Feinberg conducted six online studies involving 1,322 participants. 

Media Contacts

Robb Willer, Sociology, Stanford University: (607) 339-6466,
Matthew Feinberg, Organizational Behavior, University of Toronto: (647) 241-3423,
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,