By Emma Young
Where do you like pheasant shooting? Or single religion schools? Or abortion? However you feel, your attitudes are likely to have strong moral grounds. This makes them particularly resistant to change. And since someone who takes a contrary view based on his or her own moral stance is unlikely to be easily influenced by your arguments, such disputes naturally lead to outbreaks within families and workplaces within families and at work as well .
Anything that can encourage people to be more open, at least to think about an alternative point of view, could help, argued Mengran Xu and Richard E. Petty of Ohio State University, USA. And in a new newspaper in Personality and Social Psychology BulletinThey reveal a potentially promising way of doing just that.
In the first study, researchers looked at how various messages about gun control and free speech for Nazis went down with a total of 375 US participants. The participants first reported on their attitudes towards these issues and the extent to which these attitudes had a moral basis. Then those who felt that Nazis should Not are allowed to speak at US high schools, read a statement that ends with the argument that they are actually allowed to speak. There were two variations, however: this conclusion was either preceded by strong arguments in their favor (a one-sided message), or preceded by these arguments and the realization that some people might find this “too much” for students (two-sided message). A similar procedure was used with those who initially reported assistance for gun control.
Participants next used a simple scale to indicate how open they were to reconsidering their position. The researchers’ analysis showed that the more moral a participant’s attitudes were, the less he was open to the opposing viewpoint. For those who had read the two-sided message, however, that effect disappeared: that is, morally based attitudes no longer seemed to make people less open to opposing views.
A follow-up study found that a two-sided argument that didn’t really respect the opposing argument produced only weak counter-arguments – for example, claiming that gun ownership is bad because guns make loud noises – that was no longer effective in influencing attendees as one-sided messages .
In a final study, an attempt was made to examine the actual behavior of people more closely. The participants in this study had all reported that they did not support the idea that masks should always be worn outside during the Covid-19 pandemic. The team found that a two-sided message had a greater impact than a one-sided message on participants’ reported openness to more mask wear and their reported intention to wear masks more often.
Regarding the results as a whole, the researchers write: “The relative utility of a two-way message versus one-way communication improves as the moral basis of the attitude increases.”
Conflict and misunderstanding between people with different views seem to have worsened over the past few decades, they add. This work suggests that one way to address this – and advance your or your organization’s view on an issue with a strong moral foundation – is to clearly respect the reasons for an alternate view while advocating your own position. This is hardly a radical argument. But given the often critical debates that develop around morally sound attitudes, it is certainly worth thinking about.
– Mutual messages promote openness to morally sound attitudes
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) works at BPS Biomedarticles