Attitudes are the foundation for what we believe and how we act. But that foundation is often a shifty one. In my last post, I wrote about the psychology of hypocrisy, noting the recent shift in attitudes toward Donald Trump after he became his party's de facto nominee. His favorables are higher than ever, not in response to any change in tone from the candidate, but in response to a change in the political realities: namely, for conservatives, the lack of an alternative. Even when we are talking about strong and well-considered beliefs, those beliefs can mutate. To persuaders, that creates some opportunities. But for those wanting to rely on set beliefs, the flux can be a little disconcerting. What do you do when you want a particular attitude to stick and to be resistant and durable?
Recent research covered in ScienceDaily provides an answer: You get people to believe that their opinions are based on morality, and not on mere practicality. The study published in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (Luttrell, Petty, Briñol & Wagner, 2016) finds that just telling people their views are based in morality made those views stronger and more resistant to change. When the attitude is labeled as an issue of morality, the association conveys universality and strength. As a result, we are more likely to commit to it and to resist efforts to weaken or to set that attitude aside. Interestingly, in the study, it was enough for the research participants to simply be told by the researchers that their existing attitude was based on moral terms rather than alternative terms. Lead author Andrew Luttrell explained, "The perception that an attitude we hold is based on morality is enough to strengthen it." I have previously written that people tend to reason based on a limited set of common moral foundations, but people tend to ground their arguments in their own moral foundations and not those of their target audience. But this research suggests another persuasive route: When you want your audience to stick with a particular belief, highlight the moral bases of that belief.
The Research: A Moral Frame is More Durable
Many previous studies on moral foundations have relied on self-report on the moral basis: In that context, what is "moral" depends on the individual's act of labeling it as such. This study (Luttrell, Petty, Briñol & Wagner, 2016) differs because it successfully manipulated the moral perception. The experimenters asked 183 college students to respond to an essay in favor of their university adopting a new comprehensive examination policy. The students were then told by the researcher that the views they expressed were based on morality, on tradition, or on equality. Then they were asked whether they would sign a petition in favor of the new examination policy. The students who were told that their views were based on morality were significantly more likely to translate those views into behavior. The beliefs labeled as "moral," end up being more personally influential than those based on labels of either "tradition" or "equality."
In another study, students wrote an essay on recycling, and the researchers again told them their attitudes reflected either the "morality" or the "practicality" of recycling. Again, those receiving the "moral" label were more likely to stick with their views and to translate those views into action. "What was remarkable," according to Andrew Luttrell, "was how easy it was to lead people into thinking their views were based on moral principles." Richard Petty, a coauthor and well-known professor of psychology at Ohio State, added an explanation: "Morality can act as a trigger -- you can attach the label to nearly any belief and instantly make that belief stronger."
The Implications: Make it Moral When You Want It to Endure
We sometimes celebrate the ability of audiences to change their views -- after all, that's what makes persuasion possible. But sometimes, we like those views as they are and want to make sure those views remain as sticky as possible. For that purpose, moral framing acts as a kind of Velcro. And based on this study, moral framing means not just labeling your own views as moral. Instead, it means getting your target to label theirs as moral. Let's look at two settings where you might use moral framing in order to make attitudes more resistant to change.
In Voir Dire
Imagine that a potential juror has just expressed a bias against your client. The next step in the process is to test the strength of that attitude to see if it rises to the level of a cause challenge. If it doesn't, then your remaining play is to use one of your precious strikes. So in this case, you want that juror to resist rehabilitation and to stick with that unfavorable view.
To increase your odds, invite your venire member to use moral terms, or supply those terms yourself:
Do you consider this to be a casual belief of yours, or is it connected to your moral sense of right and wrong?
Would you describe that view as a position that you have at this point, or more of a principle that you are committed to?
Do you believe that for practical reasons or for moral reasons?
Imagine that at least some of your jury begins your trial with favorable views. For defendants this might mean that they start out with a strong commitment to individual responsibility, or for plaintiffs it might mean that they start out with a deep distrust of large corporations. In both cases, the other side didn't have enough strikes to remove them all. In that circumstance, you'll want to capitalize on these existing attitudes and make sure they aren't watered down and replaced in the context of the detailed case presentations.
Acknowledging those views and adding a moral tint to them can help to make them more durable.
Your job is to follow the law in this case. But the law is based on what is moral.
This case is going to come down to some basics of right and wrong.
Beyond the specifics, there is a principle at stake.