Robb Willer: How Do We Bridge The Political Divide? Liberals and conservatives believe in different sets of moral values. That's why, social psychologist Robb Willer says, appealing to the other side's values — not your own — might change more minds.
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Robb Willer: How Do We Bridge The Political Divide?

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Robb Willer: How Do We Bridge The Political Divide?

Robb Willer: How Do We Bridge The Political Divide?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about dialogue and exchange. And we couldn't possibly do a show about dialogue without talking about politics. OK, so, Robb, I think - I have this feeling that the United States is so divided, is more divided than at any other time in history. But then like I go to Harpers Ferry, W.V., to see, you know, the historical sites there, and you're reminded that the country was really divided back then. And so then I think, well, maybe we're really not as divided as we think we are but are we?

ROBB WILLER: Well, I agree with you that things are not as bad as the Civil War. But if that's the baseline, you know, then...

RAZ: Yeah.

WILLER: ...That's a tough baseline. Yeah, but they're very bad. They're very bad.

RAZ: This is Robb Willer.

WILLER: I'm a professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University.

RAZ: And Robb spends a lot of time studying how Americans communicate about politics and how they could do it a lot better.

WILLER: It used to be that liberals and conservatives liked themselves more than the other group, you know. But the level of that difference has really grown. And it's not the case that we like our own group so much more than we used to, it's more that we dislike the other group more and more every year. The levels of political division we see in the country are profoundly destabilizing to our government, to our economy, to our culture. And it's just all this hate and bitterness that circulates in our country. And it's taxing to everyone. And it's going to - it could get worse.

RAZ: So what do we do?

WILLER: Well, OK. So for the last several years, I've been really interested in this question of how liberals and conservatives talk when they're trying to persuade one another and how they should talk if they wanted to be more successful. And in a nutshell, what we find is that liberals and conservatives, when they go to persuade one another on a political issue, that they tend to make arguments in terms of their own values.

So when we do research on this, we find that liberals care a lot about equality, fairness, protecting vulnerable people from harm, social justice. And then conservatives, they care a lot about things like group loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority, moral purity, religious sanctity, moral considerations that liberals care less about than conservatives do. And so, you know, one way we can think about our very divided political topography in this country is that it rests on top of this equally divided moral topography.

RAZ: So each side basically sees the world in a totally different way?

WILLER: That's right. And, in effect, they reach out to persuade as though they were looking into a mirror, just sort of reciting the arguments that they themselves found persuasive. And if you think about it, that's maybe how you approach political conversations is you're like, oh, OK, I've got - this is the reason that I have this position.

RAZ: Yeah. Right. And I would assume that all I need to do is articulate that and you would say, oh, now I see the light.

WILLER: Exactly. It's a totally intuitive approach, you know. The problem is that that argument that you or I find persuasive might not be persuasive to somebody else. And, in fact, for, you know, hot-button issues like gay marriage or, you know, tax reform or, you know, the environment. People have heard the primary arguments on the other side, and if they were going to be persuaded by those arguments, they would already be on your side. And so instead what you got to do is you got to try to find new arguments.

RAZ: Here's more from Robb Willer on the TED stage.


WILLER: So what would work better? Well, we believe it's a technique that we call moral reframing, and we've studied it in a series of experiments. In one of these experiments, we recruited liberals and conservatives to a study where they read one of three essays before having their environmental attitudes surveyed. And the first of these essays was a relatively conventional pro-environmental essay that invoked the liberal values of care and protection from harm. It said things like - in many important ways, we are causing real harm to the places we live in. And it is essential that we take steps now to prevent further destruction from being done to our earth.

Another group of participants were assigned to read a different essay that was designed to tap into the conservative value of moral purity. It was a pro-environmental essay as well. And it said things like - keeping our forests, drinking water and skies pure is of vital importance. We should regard the pollution of the places we live in to be disgusting. And reducing pollution can help us preserve what is pure and beautiful about the places we live. Then we had a third group of participants that were assigned to read just a nonpolitical essay. It was just a comparison group so we could get a baseline.

And what we found - when we surveyed people about their environmental attitudes afterwards - we found that liberals, it didn't really matter what essay they read. They tended to have highly pro-environmental attitudes regardless. Liberals are on board for environmental protection. Conservatives, however, were significantly more supportive of progressive environmental policies and environmental protection if they had read the moral purity essay than if they read one of the other two essays.

We even found that conservatives who read the moral purity essay were significantly more likely to say that they believed in global warming and were concerned about global warming even though this essay didn't even mention global warming. That's just a related environmental issue, but that's how robust this moral reframing effect was. And, you know, we've studied this on a whole slew of different political issues. So if you want to move liberals to the right on conservative policy issues like military spending and making English the official language of the U.S., it's - you're going to be more persuasive if you tie those conservative policy issues to liberal moral values like equality and fairness.

And, you know, if you want to move conservatives on issues like same-sex marriage or national health insurance, it helps to tie these liberal political issues to conservative values like patriotism and moral purity. All these studies have the same clear message. If you want to persuade someone on some policy, it's helpful to connect that policy to their underlying moral values.

RAZ: I mean, in theory, it does make sense - right? - that you would sort of use moral reframing to make your case. But that can be really hard, especially if the person you're arguing with supports something that you find morally reprehensible. To then co-opt their language to make the case against them is hard.

WILLER: Yeah. I think that that's exactly right. And I think it's important to note that moral reframing is not necessarily a good technique that should be used under all circumstances. You know, sometimes you do need to draw a line and say, no, you know, the reason that we should educate, you know, people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in the same public schools is because of the same basic dignity that all individuals possess.

Like, it has to be an equality of basic human worth that is the, you know, at least one of the major reasons for that policy, you know. And we've got to fight that fight too. You might decide that. You might decide that. It might take a little longer to win that policy, you know, but you might say that we've got to win this moral fight as well as this policy fight, you know, hand in glove. But I think other times, you might say, no, you know, like, we need to just get this policy through, and it's OK for people to agree with it for different reasons.

RAZ: Yeah. I wonder if we could rethink the idea of dialogue altogether so, you know, so it's less about politics and like current events...


RAZ: ...And just more about, like, general human experiences.

WILLER: I hope so. I hope we do see that. You know, one reason that this technique of moral reframing - that we think is attractive about it is you can still have an opinion while using it. You know, it doesn't mean that you have to just meet in the soft milk toasty center of the political divide, you know, where nobody gets what they want. Instead, you can keep your position, perhaps very strong position, but you make an argument that resonates with the person you're trying to convince. And so I think that's an attractive thing because people feel very strongly about politics in America.

There's going to need to be some sort of large-scale collective action in the U.S. in support of respect across the political divide or consideration of other perspectives or whatever it is. And I don't think that - I mean, I have my own politics. And I'm not particularly near the center of the ideological distribution, but I would like to be able to find a way to connect. So a technique that allows me to have an opinion while also potentially persuading somebody is attractive.

RAZ: Robb Willer is a social psychologist at Stanford. You can see his full talk at And if you want to find out more about some of the ideas that inspired his research, you should also check out Jonathan Haidt and his TED Talks also at

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