Study: Moral foundations predict willingness to take action to avert climate change

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A person’s moral foundations influences their willingness to take personal action to fight climate change, according to research published in PLoS One.

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory is a pluralistic model that identifies moral factors that can influence human motivation. The theory posits five moral foundations: compassion/harming, fairness/cheating, ingroup-loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

The study found that 78.1% of participants believed climate change was happening and 59.3% were either willing or very willing to take personal action to help avert it. People who placed more emphasis on compassion and fairness were more likely to report being willing to make personal lifestyle changes to help avoid climate change. Purity also emerged as a weaker predictor of willingness to act.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Janis L. Dickinson of Cornell University. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Dickinson: I had long been interested in the research on moral diversity by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, largely because it appeared to explain why righteousness was claimed by so many different camps, including some camps that identify as Americans, but whose values seem at odds with the tenets of non-harming and fairness, which we often assume are the underpinnings of democracy and religion. Values like ingroup loyalty can be at odds with fairness, and together with purity and authority, can undergird racism, fascism, and support for non-egalitarian policies. Rather than just writing them off as “immoral” Haidt’s group recognized them as a different morality. In so doing, they provided some interesting insights into what had previously seemed to be a dissonance between what we thought of as key moral values and people’s attitudes or behavior.

What should the average person take away from your study?

First, most people in the USA (78%) believe that climate change is happening. But willingness to make lifestyle changes to avert climate change is about more than just acknowledging the wealth of scientific evidence that climate change is real and is caused by humans. Strong valuation of non-harming and fairness were associated with increased willingness to act on climate change in our study, and these values are more strongly held by liberals and Democrats than by conservatives and Republicans in the USA.

But people’s moral profiles are complex, consisting of at least 5 important moral axes: fairness, non-harming, purity, ingroup loyalty, and authority. While conservatives and Republicans may not value fairness and compassion as strongly as liberals, they still value them. On the other hand, these values may take a back seat to ingroup loyalty, purity, and respect for authority, which are more highly prized by conservatives. Our findings indicate that valuation of purity is also associated with increased willingness to act on climate change. This suggests that purity may provide an alternative pathway to willingness to act on climate change – focusing on the purity of nature and the purity of intentions to take care of the planet may help motivate conservatives to take personal action on climate change.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This is a tiny piece of a very large puzzle. Many factors are thought to influence whether people take action on climate change, including knowing what actions will be most effective, convenience, cost, valuation of the natural world, and cognitive biases, such as discounting the future. We still don’t know the extent to which people can be persuaded to act and what kinds of messages are most effective. Further, our research focused only on personal action, which is not going to be sufficient unless we can maintain and strengthen policies that will reduce carbon emissions and support renewables through incentives and research.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Our research is based on combining different sets of questions asked in the Cornell National Social Survey, a telephone survey of 1,000 Americans.

The study, “Which Moral Foundations Predict Willingness to Make Lifestyle Changes to Avert Climate Change in the USA?” was published October 19, 2016. In addition to Dickinson, it was co-authored by Poppy McLeod, Robert Bloomfield, and Shorna Allred.