It seems like politics affects everything people do. The shows people watch, the pets they have, and the cars they drive increasingly line up with their political views. Politics have even crept into how people think about health and how to protect it.

Political divisions in health beliefs are not new, but they came into focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, when American Democrats and Republicans sharply diverged in how much they followed health guidelines like wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

But health measures are not inherently political. In the earliest days of the pandemic, people's politics were not consistently tied to how seriously they took the health emergency. So, if protecting people's health is not political by nature, then perhaps there's hope that we can bridge this political divide by taking advantage of new ideas in the social sciences.

A Political Divide is a Moral Divide

Political groups don't already see eye-to-eye because there's a key sticking point between people with more liberal versus conservative views: their moral compass. On average, when they think about what separates "right" and "wrong," liberals tend to emphasize the importance of avoiding harm and treating people fairly. Conservatives, on the other hand, are relatively more concerned with loyalty to their community, respect for authority, and preserving the sanctity of cherished ideals.

This moral divide means that people sometimes talk past one another. When asked to write a convincing message to someone with an opposing political affiliation, liberals tend to write from the perspective of harm and fairness, whereas conservatives tend to write from the perspective of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. But these strategies don't take the other person's values into account!

What if people tried to base their arguments in the values their audience actually holds? A bunch of data in psychology has shown that this can be a powerful strategy. From messages about the environment, to canvassers having one-on-one conversations about abortion, communicators are often more persuasive when they speak from the moral perspective of their audience.

A Moral Approach to Health Messages

My colleague and I thought that appealing to people's unique moral values could help bridge political divides in health-related behaviors like wearing a face mask in public spaces. We developed three messages advocating mask-wearing. One drew on the values that liberals emphasize, arguing that masks help address the harms of a pandemic that have unfairly produced disparate impacts on marginalized communities. The other drew on the moral values that conservatives emphasize, arguing that masks are a way to show one's patriotism and fight against a virus that attacks bodily purity.

The final message was a simple call to wear masks with no moral rationale. This "control condition" was important because it could help us see whether the advantage of moral arguments has more to do with the benefits of speaking the audience's language versus avoiding backlash against arguments based on the "wrong" values.

We surveyed almost 750 people—half Democrats, half Republicans—and randomly showed everyone one of our pro-mask messages. We asked everyone to read the message carefully and rate it for how persuasive it seemed and how likely they would be to share it on social media.

As expected, Democrats preferred the "harm and fairness" message over the "loyalty and purity" one—they rated it as more persuasive and said they'd be more likely to share it. Moreover, they saw the liberal-leaning message as more persuasive than the basic, non-moral message, and they also saw the conservative-leaning message as LESS persuasive than the basic message. So, it's not that Democrats don't find loyalty and purity arguments as convincing as their preferred arguments—they find them less convincing than if no argument was made at all!

Curiously, we didn't find the same pattern for Republicans. They didn't differentiate between the messages, and we're not sure why. One possibility is that by this point, conservative respondents had made up their minds on the issue and were sick of hearing about it, so they just ignored the messages we presented.

Turning to Morality for Other Health Issues

Overall, messages highlighting the moral implications of health-related behavior can be compelling. We still need to figure out why moral arguments didn't resonate with Republicans, but our study provides at least initial support for the idea that people can be moved by moral reasoning…when it's done right.

For advocacy about issues as important as public health, understanding your audience is imperative. It's tempting to just make the arguments you find persuasive, but what persuades you may seem trivial or even backwards to the audience you're addressing. Consider their values even if they differ from yours, and present a message that takes their concerns seriously.

For Further Reading

Luttrell, A., & Trentadue, J. T. (2024). Advocating for mask-wearing across the aisle: Applying moral reframing in health communication. Health Communication, 39(2), 270-282.

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2019). Moral reframing: A technique for effective and persuasive communication across political divides. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(12), Article e12501.

Andy Luttrell is an Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University. He studies the role of morality in public opinion and persuasive messaging. He is also an associate editor of the Character & Context blog.