How (not) to have political conversations

Why different values matter when people make political arguments

Especially in the US, it currently seems like two very assertive political groups are yelling at each other, apparently unable to find common ground. Why is that? And why does it seem like nobody is impressed by the other side’s arguments?

Research that might shed a light on what is going on here was published in 2015, by Robb Miller of Stanford University and Mathew Feinberg of Toronto University, under the title: From Gulf to Bridge: When do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?

The authors of the article present evidence suggesting that what they term “moral reframing” is significantly effective when trying to persuade someone with a political argument. The authors thus imply, that people hold fundamental beliefs and values and that their political opinions are an extension of those values. Hence, when trying to convince someone of an argument, it is important to address the fundamental values of the person to be persuaded rather than appealing to values that oneself deems important.

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Robb Miller

In their experiments, that were conducted in the political context of the US, the authors show that Conservatives are significantly more likely to support gay marriage if it is framed around values that Conservatives tend to pride themselves on. As Conservatives are traditionally opposed to gay marriage, it is remarkable, that the respondents within the experiments conducted by the authors showed a significant increase in their tendency to be swayed by these arguments.


The arguments that were most effective in convincing Conservatives to agree with gay marriage were those that argued that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans” who “contribute to the American economy and society.

The authors conclude from this and other similar observations, that it is crucial to address the values that are held by the person to be persuaded to be successful in a political debate.

The authors state explicitly that arguments appealing to values that are not held by the person to be persuaded have little to not affect or persuasive power. This is exemplified by the finding of the research that appealing to equality is very persuasive when addressing Democrats, but not persuasive at all when addressing Republicans.

This research further suggests that political conversations fail, if people argue on different moral grounds, appealing to moral values that are important to themselves, rather than considering the values of the person they seek to convince of their argument.

One of the authors attested in a recent interview printed in the Atlantic, that “We tend to view our moral values as universal,” but also that we believe that “there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, to use moral reframing, you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.

In the interview, Feinberg also stressed that attacking people for holding certain political beliefs and opinions was almost certainly not going to be effective.  “People typically do not do well when attacked,” he said, “this could simply push them to be stauncher in their position.

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Mathew Feinberg

So, what this ultimately means is that political beliefs are not as static as they often appear. What seems to be more important are the fundamental values that lie at the heart of people’s political opinions. It thus becomes important to recognise that different people value things in life differently and will thus be unimpressed by arguments stressing values that they do not prioritise.  I believe that this realization or formalization of this circumstance should lead people to re-evaluate the way in which they have a political discussion. It seems as there is a scientific basis for the need to see the world from someone else’s perspective to be able to have meaningful political dialogue.



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