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How to win any political argument

Pointing the finger of blame rarely wins arguments.

Trying to convince a political opponent to support a particular position? The secret is to appeal to their own moral values—rather than trying to persuade them using yours, says a new paper co-authored by a Rotman professor.

Convincing a conservative to support same-sex marriage may sound like an impossible task, but two professors say they’ve discovered how to effectively do it. They’ve uncovered a powerful arguing technique that persuades even staunch political opponents, and they say it could help bridge the political divide .

When trying to convince a political opponent to support a particular position, the secret is to appeal to their own moral values—rather than trying to persuade them using yours.

“Our natural style of arguing is often ineffective. Appealing to a shared sense of justice gets you nowhere when politics is increasingly partisan.”

- Matthew Feinberg, Rotman assistant professor of organizational behaviour

A paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on Oct. 7 sets out the results of six online studies involving 1,322 participants. The study focused on the increasingly partican culture of the United States, where research suggests that liberals and conservatives have contrasting moral perspectives.

In the first two studies, the researchers (Matthew Feinberg with Stanford sociology professor Robb Willer) found that people often refer to their own values, and even contradict their opponent’s moral views, when making a political argument.

Some 93 liberals recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk online marketplace were asked to write an argument to convince conservatives to support same-sex marriage, while 84 conservatives were asked to write an argument to convince liberals that English should be the official language of the United States. Both sets showed a tendency to frame the issue through their own moral prism. Some 34% of liberals wrote arguments that contradicted conservative values, while 14% of conservatives wrote arguments that contradicted liberal values.

The researchers then conducted a series of tests to see whether liberals and conservatives would be persuaded by arguments when they were based on their own moral beliefs (purity and patriotism for conservatives, and fairness and equality for liberals). They found that:

  • Conservatives were more likely to support universal health care when they read an argument said more uninsured people led to “more unclean, infected, and diseased Americans.”
  • Liberals were more likely to support high levels of military spending when they were told that the military improves equality by allowing disadvantaged people to overcome poverty.
  • Conservatives were more convinced by a pro same-sex marriage article when the argument pointed out that same-sex couple are proud, patriotic Americans.
  • Liberals were more persuaded by arguments for making English the official language of the United States when they read that this would lead to better lives for immigrants and help them overcome discrimination.

Willer told Stanford News that the research could help build cross-party support for hot-button issues in politics. “Morality can be a source of political division, a barrier to building bi-partisan support,” he said. “But it can also be a bridge if you can connect your position to your audience’s deeply held moral convictions.”

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