April 4, 2010 | Working Papers

Hearts or Minds? Persuasive Messages on Climate Change

Authors: Joshua Busby, Ph.D., Bethany Albertson, Ph.D.

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What kinds of appeals do the public find persuasive for global causes? Are arguments that appeal to so-called rational self-interest more persuasive than those that appeal to morality? Are mixed messages that combine appeals of self-interest with morality more successful than streamlined single themed messages? The causal mechanisms by which transnational advocacy movements are able to generate political support for their campaigns are poorly specified in the literature in international relations and public opinion. This paper explores the relative persuasiveness of advocacy appeals for the issue of climate change. Using an experimental design, this paper reports the results of survey market research of a diverse sample of 360 subjects, each of whom was assigned to one of four conditions, a control condition with no message appeal, an economic self-interest appeal, a secular moral appeal, and a mixed appeal combining self interest and morality. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their willingness to support advocacy efforts, including such actions as writing a letter to the member of Congress, signing a petition, and joining an organization. We hypothesized that for issues like climate change for which the costs of action are higher and for which there is a more direct cost to individuals or the country, arguments based on economic self-interest are more likely to be persuasive than moral appeals. Where the direct risks or costs to individuals or the country are lower (like the global AIDS crisis), moral messages are more likely to have appeal. For especially religious subjects, however, we hypothesize that moral arguments may be as if not more persuasive even on issues like climate change where the direct costs to the individual or country are likely to be higher.

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