As I finished a recent presentation, “Thinking Smart in a Post-Truth Age,” a questioner’s hand shot up: “I understand the need to think with our heads as well as our hearts, by considering the evidence. But how can I persuade people such as the climate-change-denying folks meeting in my town next week?”
I responded by commending a gentle conversation that searched for common values. I also noted that advocates for any cause are wise to not focus on immovable folks with extreme views, but on the uncertain middle—the folks whose votes sway elections and shape history.
I should also have mentioned the consistent finding of nine new studies by University of Cologne psychologists Joris Lammers and Matt Baldwin: Folks will often agree with positions that are linked to their own yearnings. For example, might conservatives who tend to yearn for yesteryear’s good old days respond to messages that appeal to nostalgia? Indeed, say Lammers and Baldwin, that was the successful assumption of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message.
But the same appeal to nostalgia can also promote progressive ideas, they report. For example, liberals were much more supportive than conservatives of a future-focused gun-control message: “I would prefer to make a change, so that in the future people may own hunting rifles and pistols, but no one will have assault rifles.” When the researchers framed the same message with a past-focus: “I would like to go back to the good old days, when people may have owned hunting rifles and pistols, but no one had assault rifles,” conservatives pretty much agreed with liberals.
Likewise, contemporary Germans on the left and right expressed much less disagreement about an immigration message when it focused on their country’s past history of welcoming of immigrants.
In earlier research, Lammers and Baldwin also found conservatives more open to nostalgia-focused environmental appeals—to, for example, donating money to a charity focused on restoring yesterday’s healthy Earth, rather than a charity focused on preventing future environmental damage. “Make Earth Great Again.”
Ergo, I now realize I should have encouraged my questioner to market her message to her audience. If it’s a political message pitched by conservatives at liberals, it’s fine to focus on making a better future. But if she is appealing to conservatives, then she might take a back-to-the-future approach: Frame her message as support for the way things used to be.
(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)