The Science of Belief: Use Values and Worldviews to Build Bridges

Illustration by Ailadi.

Why do people have such radically different responses to refugees? How is it that despite our best efforts to gain support for the protection of people whose lives are devastated by forces outside their control, we continue to face apathy and opposition?

The work of social scientists studying how people form beliefs suggests that different responses to issues ranging from climate change to immigration are driven by their emotions, values, and identities. Understanding how these factors work is important for designing effective communication strategies for the protection of refugees. Once you understand the motivating factors of potential donors, influencers, partners or refugees, you will be more effective in gaining their support and influencing their behavior.

One of the mistakes people often make when they develop a strategy to communicate on an issue they care about is to frame their arguments using their own values and worldviews. What we have to do instead is understand and resonate with the values and worldviews of those whose perspectives we’re trying to shift.

For example, Feinberg and Willer (2015) found that in the United States, when liberals were asked to make arguments in support of same-sex marriage to conservatives and when conservatives were asked to make arguments in support of adopting English as the official language of the United States to liberals, both relied on their own values– values that were in direct conflict with those of the people to whom they were making their case.

The way we are talking about the needs of refugees and possible solutions may also be in conflict with our target community’s values and worldviews. This inclination may be doing more harm than good. To overcome the potential barrier created by an overreliance on our own values, research suggests that we need to build arguments that speak to people’s gut intuitions.

Gut intuition guides the way people form judgments and engage with social issues and possible solutions. This is not a rational process. People do not objectively weigh the pros and cons of politicized issues — like refugee crises, racial inequity or climate change– and come to a logical conclusion. They have emotional reactions to information that they ad post hoc reasoning to justify, even if it’s scientifically and objectively unsound (Haidt, 2012). If, for example, someone feels that refugees pose a threat to their community, regardless of what research and history show, they will have a negative reaction to information regarding refugees and find a reason to justify why they are right.

Intuition is based on deeply held moral values and beliefs about how the world works. Researchers have surveyed thousands of people around the world to measure what was morally important to them and identified five values that guide gut intuition: care, fairness, ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity (Feinberg and Willer, 2015; Graham et al., 2009; Graham et al., 2011).

In Western culture, values often manifest in the political parties people align themselves with. In the United States, for example, there are predominately two parties that people identify with, Republicans and Democrats (referred to in the United States as conservatives and liberals, respectively). Republicans tend to have a collectivist worldview and support individualistic solutions to social problems. They value respect for authority, preserving the sacred, and loyalty to people who share their identities and values. Democrats tend to have an individualistic worldview, value fairness and justice, and support egalitarian solutions to social problems.

When communicating about the needs of refugees and possible solutions, research suggests that we should start from this foundation and frame arguments in a way that is consistent with the target community’s worldview and values to build bridges and avoid triggering negative gut reactions.

In one study, for example, arguing that military funding is important for reducing inequality led liberals in the United States to be more open to the idea (not support, but less opposed). In the same study, conservatives were more likely to support the highly politicized Affordable Care Act when it was framed as promoting purity — emphasizing that “uninsured people means more unclean, infected and diseased Americans”(Feinberg and Willer, 2015).

In a series of experiments, Campbell and Kay (2014) found that people are divided over scientific evidence on climate change, environmental degradation, crime and attitudes toward gun reforms because often the assumed or presented solutions are in conflict with their values. In one experiment, conservatives who tend to not support climate change policy were more likely to accept climate change science when presented with a market-based solution, rather than one that relied on government regulation.

Aversion to solutions, rather than issues, is an interesting finding to consider as we look at policy for asylum seekers. While there is a growing hostility in host countries toward refugees seeking asylum, research suggests that people are open to solutions rooted in fairness.

In their 2017 study, Stanford researchers Bansak, Hainmueller and Hangartner surveyed 18,000 citizens from 15 European countries regarding their preference for allocating asylum seekers. In contrast to current policy, citizens preferred a system that allocates asylum seekers based on the capacity of the country — even if that means some countries will host more than others. This research suggests that people may not be opposed to hosting asylum seekers, but rather opposed to existing solutions. In this case, citizens support policy solutions rooted in fairness (Bansak, Hainmueller and Hangartner, 2017).

Now You Try:

In order to talk about the needs of refugees and potential solutions in ways that lower perceptions of threat and that create positive gut intuitions, communication strategies must tap into the values and worldviews of your target community. Below is an exercise to help you craft persuasive frames.

Answer the following questions regarding a project you are working on that requires you to build support for a particular issue or solution.

  1. Who are you trying to persuade in your communication?
  2. What are some of the dominant or common arguments that you make?
  3. What are the underlying values in your argument? Which values do they reflect (care, fairness, ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity)? What worldviews do they reflect (individualism or egalitarianism)?
  4. What are some of the dominant or common arguments made by your target community?
  5. What are the underlying values in their arguments? Which values do they reflect (care, fairness, ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity)? What worldviews do they reflect (individualism or egalitarianism)?
  6. How can you reframe your argument in a way that aligns with your audience’s values?

Pro-Tip: We should also think about the hidden ways we express our ideological positions and values. Even the sources you cite, the messenger who delivers the argument and the way you respond to certain arguments provide clues to your position. If we want to ensure we do not threaten the values and worldview of the people we are communicating with, we must account for these hidden clues. Be conscious of the sources and references you use in your arguments.

In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida partnered to better understand how science can connect individuals with calls to actions that will result in lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

This series provides academic insights, theory and hands-on exercises that will help you apply science to improve communications.

This research project shares theory and science that helps us understand how people think and act, and is designed to help you incorporate those insights into your work. The exploration is divided into three articles:

Each article theme has robust empirical and theoretical findings and debates. We’ve sought to include the works of prominent scholars to get you started, and hope to spark your desire for further exploration.

Thank you to Eugenia Blaubach for editorial support on this series.


Bansak, Kirk, Jens Hainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner. “Europeans support a proportional allocation of asylum seekers.” Nature Human Behaviour 1.7 (2017): 0133

Campbell, Troy H., and Aaron C. Kay. “Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief.” Journal of personality and social psychology 107.5 (2014): 809

Feinberg, Matthew, and Robb Willer. “From gulf to bridge: when do moral arguments facilitate political influence?.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41.12 (2015): 1665–1681

Feinberg, Matthew, and Robb Willer. “The moral roots of environmental attitudes.” Psychological Science 24.1 (2013): 56–62.

Graham, Jesse, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek. “Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations.” Journal of personality and social psychology 96.5 (2009): 1029

Graham, Jesse, et al. “Mapping the moral domain.” Journal of personality and social psychology 101.2 (2011): 366

Graham, Jesse, et al. “Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism.” Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 47. Academic Press, 2013. 55–130.

Gray, Kurt, and Chelsea Schein. “No absolutism here: Harm predicts moral judgment 30× better than disgust — Commentary on Scott, Inbar, & Rozin (2016).” Perspectives on Psychological Science 11.3 (2016): 325–329

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.

Haidt, Jonathan. The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage, 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Matthew A. Hersh. “Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology31.1 (2001): 191–221

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2011). Switch. Vintage Espanol.

McAdams, Dan P., et al. “Family metaphors and moral intuitions: How conservatives and liberals narrate their lives.” Journal of personality and social psychology 95.4 (2008): 978.

How science can improve communication about refugees and…

Thanks to UNHCR Innovation Service, Ellen nodine, Ann Searight Christiano, and Eugenia Blaubach

Annie Neimand, Ph.D.

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