Want to save this tree? Depending on your political leanings, it may come down to how you are asked, say a new study.

Want to save this tree? Depending on your political leanings, it may come down to how you are asked, say a new study.

Devan Schwartz/OPB

A new study in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology” looks into the different ways that liberals and conservatives respond to messages about the environment.  

The research, led by Oregon State University-Cascades professor Christopher Wolsko, shows conservatives can be persuaded by environmental messaging when it speaks to their system of values.  

“Conservatives are not inherently anti-environmental,” says Wolsko. “They are just, to some extent, rejecting the very liberal, pro-environmental discourse.”  

Wolsko’s research built on the work of previous studies that show liberals respond most strongly to messages about compassion and justice, while conservatives respond more to messages about loyalty, authority, purity and patriotism.

Participants in Wolsko’s study were asked to respond to a set of questions that determined their political views. Then they were shown two very different messages asking them to support the environment.  

One was meant to appeal to liberal sentiments:  

“Show your love for all of humanity and the world in which we live by helping to care for our vulnerable natural environment. Help to reduce the harm done to the environment by taking action. By caring for the natural world you are helping to ensure that everyone around the world gets to enjoy fair access to a sustainable environment. Do the right thing by preventing the suffering of all life-forms and making sure that no one is denied their right to a healthy planet. SHOW YOUR COMPASSION.”

The other was meant to appeal to conservative values:  

“Show you love your country by joining the fight to protect the purity of America’s natural environment. Take pride in the American tradition of performing one’s civic duty by taking responsibility for yourself and the land you call home. By taking a tougher stance on protecting the natural environment, you will be honoring all of Creation. Demonstrate your respect by following the examples of your religious and political leaders who defend America’s natural environment. SHOW YOUR PATRIOTISM!”

The study found conservatives were much likelier to say they would take environmental actions — like recycling and turning off the lights in their house — after reading the second message. They also became more concerned about climate change, felt a stronger connection to nature and were more likely to donate to environmental groups after having read the conservative statement.  

The messaging worked the opposite way as well. Liberals’ pro-environmental sentiments would decrease slightly in response to the conservative messaging.  

Wolsko says the results of the study indicate that decision-making is not based on reason alone. “To say that we’re just talking about issues rationally, which people often do, is, I think, a mistake.”

Instead, people see the values of the groups that they identify with in certain messages. And that makes them more likely to agree. When those values are absent — or when the values of a group one disagrees with are present — one is more likely to disagree. 

“We want to fit in,” Wolsko says. “We want to be right. We want to be accepted. We want to be liked. We want to be loved. And so we express attitudes not just for some utilitarian purpose but we express attitudes as an affirmation of who we are and what we stand for.” 

He cautions against the study being used to further divide political messaging. “We really don’t want to just deliver separate realities to people — to tell them what they want to hear from who they want to hear it from,” he says. “That is the kind of thing that creates divisiveness and the tremendous political polarization in this country.”