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Do Ethical Attitudes Shape Political Behaviours?

According to Feinberg & Willer (2013, p. 1), ‘moral convictions and the emotions they evoke shape political attitudes.’ What evidence supports this claim? By the end of this unit you should have an initial understanding of how researchers have attempted to gather relevant evidence, and you should be familiar with some evidence for this claim.

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In this section we aim to understand and evaluate the first key claim in the argument that cultural differences in moral psychology matter for political conflict over climate change:

Moral convictions and the emotions they evoke shape political attitudes’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2013, p. 1).

Background: Effect Size

To understand the research in this section, you need a rough idea of two statistical notions: effect size and significance.

Suppose you are interested in the effects of diesel exhaust particles, such as nitrogen oxides, on respiratory health.[1] You make some observations which appear to follow a pattern: higher concentrations of nitrogen oxides are associated with worse respiratory health.

What do these observations mean? To answer that question, need to know at least two things. First, how strong is the evidence these observations provide for a connection between exhaust particles and health? Is the pattern likely to be a merely chance occurrence or can you expect to see the same pattern if you were to re-do the experiment? That is, is the pattern statistically significant?

The second thing you want to know, assuming the pattern is significant, is the size of the effect. If you impose regulations to reduce diesel exhaust particles, and if the regulations are followed,[2] how many lives can you expect to save? That is, what is the effect size you have observed.

A good, accessible source on effect sizes and how they are estimated is Sullivan & Feinn (2012).

Attitudes Do Not Explain Behaviours

Even strongly held attitudes have little influence on behaviours according to a classic review by Wicker (1969).

‘it is considerably more likely that attitudes will be unrelated or only slightly related to overt behaviors than that attitudes will be closely related to actions’ [...] ‘substantial proportions of subjects show attitude-behavior discrepancies. This is true even when subjects scoring at the extremes of attitudinal measures are compared on behavioral indices’ (p. 65).

Genthner & Taylor (1973) on racist prejudice provides a dramatic illustration. Subjects who self-reported greater prejudice were more aggressive overall in applying electric shocks, but ‘aggressed equally against’ both White people and Black people. Racist attitudes and racist behaviours are not always correlated (as many of us may know from experience, unfortunately).

Moral Attitudes Do Explain Behaviours

Skitka, Bauman, & Sargis (2005) contrasted moral attitudes (e.g. about sexuality) with non-moral but extreme attitudes (e.g. about sport). To what extend do people attempt to maintain social distance from others with conflicting attitudes?

‘The effect of moral conviction on social distance was robust when we controlled for the effects gender, age, attitudinal extremity, importance, and centrality’

‘In contrast, participants were more tolerant of having a distant than an intimate relationship with an attitudinally dissimilar other, when the attitude dissimilarity was on an issue that the participant held with low moral conviction, results that held even when we controlled for attitude strength’ (Skitka et al., 2005, p. Study 1).

But Do Moral Attitudes Explain Political Behaviours?

Skitka & Bauman (2008) report that your moral conviction about an election candidate increases both the probability that you will vote (Study 1) and the reported strength of your intention to vote (Study 2).

In both studies: ‘the effects of moral conviction on political engagement were equally strong for those on the political right and left’ (Skitka & Bauman, 2008, p. 50).

We should be cautious in relying on these particular studies insofar as the effects could in principle be due to ‘markers of attitude strength’ other than moral conviction (Skitka & Bauman, 2008, pp. 36--7).

What about Attitudes to Climate Change specifically?

Doran, Böhm, Pfister, Steentjes, & Pidgeon (2019) measured (i) the extent to which subjects took climate change to be a moral concern,[3] and (ii) the extent to which subjects evaluated the consequences of climate change negatively.

They found that

‘individuals with strong moral concerns about climate change tend to be more likely to support climate policies.

and that

‘moral concerns [were] substantially more important than consequence evaluations, explaining about twice as much of the variance.’

Conversely, Hornsey, Harris, Bain, & Fielding (2016) contrasted climate sceptics with people who know humans are causing climate change . They found that merely knowing makes little measurable difference to behaviours. (This will be discussed in Moral Psychology Drives Environmental Concern.) As they put it in a later review:

‘knowing whether people are skeptics or believers tells you surprisingly little about their willingness to engage in actions that matter’ (Hornsey & Fielding, 2020, p. 21).

Putting these two findings together (Doran et al., 2019 and Hornsey et al., 2016), knowing about climate change or its consequences does not have much effect on practical support for mitigation compared to perceiving environmental issues as moral issues.


Overall, we appear to have identified some evidence for the claim that ‘Moral convictions and the emotions they evoke shape political attitudes’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2013, p. 1). However, this required us to go beyond the studies those authors themselves cited in support of this claim.

Ask a Question

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More information about asking questions.


moral conviction : ‘Moral conviction refers to a strong and absolute belief that something is right or wrong, moral or immoral’ (Skitka et al., 2005, p. 896).


Doran, R., Böhm, G., Pfister, H.-R., Steentjes, K., & Pidgeon, N. (2019). Consequence evaluations and moral concerns about climate change: Insights from nationally representative surveys across four European countries. Journal of Risk Research, 22(5), 610–626.
Faustini, A., Rapp, R., & Forastiere, F. (2014). Nitrogen dioxide and mortality: Review and meta-analysis of long-term studies. European Respiratory Journal, 44(3), 744–753.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.
Genthner, R., & Taylor, S. (1973). Physical aggression as a function of racial prejudice and the race of the target. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(2), 207–210.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029–1046.
Hornsey, M. J., & Fielding, K. S. (2020). Understanding (and Reducing) Inaction on Climate Change. Social Issues and Policy Review, 14(1), 3–35.
Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., Bain, P. G., & Fielding, K. S. (2016). Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nature Climate Change, 6(6), 622–626.
Skitka, L. J. (2010). The Psychology of Moral Conviction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(4), 267–281.
Skitka, L. J., Bauman, C., & Sargis, E. (2005). Moral Conviction: Another Contributor to Attitude Strength or Something More? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 895–917.
Skitka, L. J., & Bauman, C. W. (2008). Moral Conviction and Political Engagement. Political Psychology, 29(1), 29–54.
Sullivan, G. M., & Feinn, R. (2012). Using Effect Size—or Why the P Value Is Not Enough. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 4(3), 279–282.
Wicker, A. W. (1969). Attitudes versus Actions: The Relationship of Verbal and Overt Behavioral Responses to Attitude Objects. Journal of Social Issues, 25(4), 41–78.


  1. Faustini, Rapp, & Forastiere (2014) is one of many studies of such effects. ↩︎

  2. Which, tragically, they were not: . ↩︎

  3. In this research, the question about moral concern was:

    ‘Some people have moral concerns about climate change. For example, because they think that its harmful impacts are more likely to affect poorer countries, or because they feel a moral responsibility towards future generations’ (Doran et al., 2019, p. 615)

    This appears to highlight the harm and fairness rather than any of the binding moral foundations such as purity. If Graham, Haidt, & Nosek (2009) are right about cultural differences and political orientation, this might in principle mean that the study confounded moral concern with political orientation. ↩︎