When People Hold Morally-Based Attitudes, Two-Sided Messages Can Encourage Them To Consider Opposing Viewpoints

By Emma Young

Where do you stand on pheasant shooting? Or single-religion schools? Or abortion? However you feel, your attitudes probably have a strong moral basis. This makes them especially resistant to change. And since anyone who holds an opposing view, based on their own moral stance, is unlikely to be easily swayed by your arguments, these kinds of disputes tend to lead to blow-outs within families and workplaces, as well, of course, as online.

So, anything that can encourage people to be more open to at least thinking about an alternative point of view could be helpful, reasoned Mengran Xu and Richard E. Petty at The Ohio State University, US. And in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they reveal a potentially promising method for doing just this.

In the first pair of studies, the researchers looked at how various messages about gun control and freedom of speech for Nazis went down with a total of 375 US-based participants. The participants first reported on their attitudes to these topics, and the extent to which those attitudes had a moral basis. Then, those who felt that Nazis should not be allowed to speak in US high schools read a statement that concluded with the argument that, in fact, they should be allowed to. There were two variations, however: this conclusion was preceded either with strong arguments in its favour (a one-sided message), or with these arguments plus an acknowledgement that some people might find this “too much” for high school students (a two-sided message). A similar procedure was used with those who’d initially reported support for gun control.

Next, the participants used a simple scale to indicate how open they were to reconsidering their position. The researchers’ analysis revealed that as the moral basis of a participant’s attitudes increased, their openness to the opposing view decreased. However, for those who’d read the two-sided message, this effect disappeared: that is, morally-based attitudes no longer seemed to make people less open to opposing views.

A follow-up study found that when a two-sided argument did not really respect the opposing argument, in that it offered only weak counter-arguments — such as claiming that gun ownership is bad because guns make upsetting loud noises — this was no more effective at influencing the participants than single-sided messages.

A final study attempted to get closer to examining people’s actual behaviour. The participants in this study had all reported being unsupportive of the idea that masks should always be worn outside during the Covid-19 pandemic. The team found that a two-sided message had a bigger impact than a one-sided message on the participants’ reported openness towards more mask-wearing, and on their reported intention to wear masks more often.

With respect to the findings overall, the researchers write, “the relative benefit of a two-sided message over a one-sided communication is enhanced as the attitude’s moral basis increases.”

Conflict and misunderstanding between people with different views does seem to have grown worse in recent decades, they add. This work suggests that one way to tackle this — and to advance your or your organisation’s point of view on a topic with a strong moral underpinning — is to clearly respect the reasons for an alternative viewpoint at the same time as advocating your own position. This is hardly a radical argument. But given the often vitriolic debates that develop around morally based attitudes, it’s surely worth bearing in mind.

Two-Sided Messages Promote Openness for Morally Based Attitudes

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest