Scientists find visions of a benevolent future society motivate reform

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, March 21, 2013 18:47 EDT
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A happy woman in a field of sunflowers. Photo: Shutterstock.com.
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Activists, take note: People support reform if they believe the changes will enhance the future character of society, according to a study published online this month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Namely, people support a future society that fosters the development of warm and moral individuals.

“There are implications for communication, but also for policies themselves. The ‘easy’ answer would be to promote a policy or cause in terms of how it will make people more warm/moral,” Paul G. Bain of the University of Queensland, the lead author of the study, explained to Raw Story via email. “But I think for this to really work it needs to be authentic/real and not just rhetoric – the policies themselves need to promote this.”

Bain, along with four colleagues, sought to explore Noam Chomsky’s dictum that “social action must be animated by a vision of a future society” — a proposition they said had not been investigated by social psychologists.

The researchers conducted eight separate experiments to investigate how people’s vision of society’s future affects their willingness or unwillingness to support particular reforms. The eight studies asked participants to reflect on how society would change by 2050 if climate change was averted, abortion laws were relaxed, marijuana was legalized, or various religious groups obtained political dominance.

Using meta-analyses, a procedure that statistically summarizes multiple studies, Bain and his colleagues determined what particular projections about the future motivated people. The strongest common element that emerged was “benevolence.” In other words, people were willing to actively support policies that they believed would result in a future where people were more friendly and moral.

“While a focus on character is more likely to be effective, this cuts both ways – if someone can persuasively argue that legalizing marijuana will harm morality/warmth in people, this might effectively turn people against legalization,” Bain explained to Raw Story. “So the main point I’d make is that we’ve helped identify dimensions that people are most likely to respond to, but these dimensions can be used rhetorically by both supporters and opponents of change.”

Implications for the climate change debate

Visions of future technological progress and crime reduction also motivated people, but only in certain contexts, such as climate change and marijuana legalization, respectively.

“While benevolence (character) showed consistent effects across studies, other dimensions emerged in particular contexts,” Bain added. “On climate change, we have other research showing that support for action was higher when people focused on character, but also on opportunities for economic/technological development.”

Previous research conducted by Bain found that skeptics of climate change could be coaxed into pro-environmental positions if the issue was presented as creating a more benevolent society and increasing technological progress.

“One challenge is to work out how to design policies to actually promote warmth/morality, and I’m discussing this with academics engaged in policy design and advice,” he told Raw Story. “The whole idea may sound a bit implausible, but if you think of it as ‘community building’ (bringing people together to promote social bonds) then it becomes more tangible for policy makers, as this is something they are able to consider in policy design.”

Bain noted the success of a community-driven effortin the deeply conservative city of Salina, Kansas. By changing the conversation from climate change to enhancing the city, the Climate and Energy Project was able to convince residents to conserve energy and adopt renewable sources of power.

“So my advice would be to incorporate community building into policy proposals, even if the policy concern is not directly about community building,” Bain said. “If you can communicate how a policy will serve its primary function and help community-building, our research suggests you will gain broader public support.”

The study was co-authored by Matthew J. Hornsey, Renata Bongiorno, Yoshihisa Kashima, and Daniel Crimston.

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[Woman in field of sunflowers via Shutterstock]

[Correction: This story originally referred to Salinas, Kansas, which does not exist.]

Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan has served as an editor for Raw Story since August 2010, and is based out of Sacramento, California. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received a Bachelor of Science from Bradley University. Eric is also the publisher and editor of PsyPost. You can follow him on Twitter @ewdolan.
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