Tailoring the message: How the political left and right think differently about human rights

Political ideology, often described on a left-right spectrum, is at the core of what we consciously believe and affects the way we perceive the political world around us. A growing and increasingly sophisticated body of research finds that ideological affinity with the “right” or “left” end of the political spectrum is deeply embedded in our physiology, neurobiology, and possibly even our genes. Substantial evidence now exists that liberals and conservatives process visual information differently, have different physiological reactions to political and even non-political stimuli, and subconsciously view the world in fundamentally different ways.

Recent research also demonstrates that political ideology is central to our attitudes and behaviors towards human rights. One public opinion study found that political liberals in the United States show higher levels of support for various human rights, such as freedom from torture, the guarantee of a minimum standard of living, and freedom of thought and expression. Other survey research in the US also concludes that liberals show greater support for human rights, and experimental research indicates that liberals are less supportive of torture

Flickr/Alek S. CC BY-ND. 2.0 (Some Rights Reserved).

Recent research also demonstrates that political ideology is central to our attitudes and behaviors towards human rights.

Our own research also shows that liberals and conservatives have wide baseline differences in their views on human rights. In an online survey of 726 US adults we collected in 2014, for example, we found a 41% probability that liberals believed the use of torture is at least sometimes justified, but a 62% probability that conservatives held the same view. Regarding the use of sweatshop labor in developing countries, there was a 58% probability that conservatives believed that governments should take action to stop the practice, but liberals believed the same with 74% probability. On a wide range of human rights related questions, we found differences in probabilities between liberals and conservatives regularly ranged between 10 and 20 percentage points, with significance levels well above 95% confidence. Our sample of voluntary online respondents was younger and more socially liberal than the average population. This type of sample has been sought after by human rights researchers, because it mirrors the type of populations targeted by HROs seeking to recruit advocates. Our findings show that baseline ideological differences in beliefs about human rights remain relevant, even among a younger and more socially liberal sample of individuals.

Variations in frames have considerable impact on how these messages are internalized (or not) by the public.

These baseline differences are noteworthy, but unlikely to surprise even the most casual observer of US politics. More interesting, however, is what we discovered about message framing. Recent research on the framing of human rights messages has found that variations in frames have considerable impact on how these messages are internalized (or not) by the public, and has helped to explain shifting attitudes on things like marriage equality in the US. Building on this new, practically-focused approach to evaluating human rights messages, our research shows that where we fall on the left-right political spectrum predicts and influences how we respond to the framing of human rights issues. Just as important as what we say about human rights abuses is how we say it. In our research, we find that political liberals respond most significantly, and are more motivated to take action, in response to message frames that convey human rights information by emphasizing the suffering of victims.  Political conservatives are more likely to feel motivated to stop human rights abuses when human rights information is framed by graphic visual imagery of human rights abuse.

We used multiple experiments to measure individual responses to different ways of framing human rights abuse. In the 2014 survey described above, we compared how individuals responded to images of prisoner abuse and worker abuse versus personal narratives of the victims. Participants in the experimental treatment groups were randomly presented with a news excerpt depicting torture which included either an image, personal narrative, or a combination of the two. We then surveyed their beliefs and intentions regarding the use of torture. The process was repeated with an image/narrative/combination of poor working conditions, and participants were again surveyed on their views about the rights of workers. The results provided strong evidence that liberals found personal narratives to be particularly powerful, a finding consistent with other research. On the issue of improving working conditions in the developing world, reading the first-person narrative of a suffering worker increased the probability that liberals favored government action by 10.3 percentage points. The same narrative actually decreased the probability that conservatives favored by action by 5.7 percentage points.

Similarly, in a second experimental study of 659 US adults, recruited online in 2015, we compared the effectiveness of several different prominent arguments against the use of torture on suspected terrorists. Study participants read a news excerpt which included one of six different arguments against torture, and were then surveyed on their views about the practice. For political liberals, an argument emphasizing the suffering of prisoners was found to outperform the rest, decreasing predicted support for torture by 11.2 percentage points. The same argument actually increased conservatives’ predicted support for torture by 7.9 percentage points, a whopping difference between left and right of 19 percentage points.

Interestingly, none of the prominent anti-torture arguments in the second study were particularly effective in moving conservative attitudes. Instead, we found that an image of a tortured prisoner (study 1) was by far the most powerful type of prompt in terms of changing conservative attitudes. Seeing the image of a bloodied prisoner decreased conservatives’ predicted support for torture by 14 percentage points, from 62% to 48%. This finding is consistent with existing research showing that conservatives may be more sensitive to portrayals of bodily harm than liberals.

These findings can be particularly useful to International Human Rights Organizations (HROs). The rise of human rights campaigns by HROs during the twentieth century aimed to increase the degree to which average citizens paid attention to human rights around the globe. These campaigns, and the very existence of organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, depend in large part on their ability to attract supporters to send donations, sign petitions, tweet, write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience, or even participate in nonviolent protests. Framing HRO campaign messages in the most persuasive way possible is central to attracting widespread and sustained support.

What do these findings mean for HROs looking to build public support for human rights causes and attract new advocates? Although liberals and conservatives exhibit different political preferences, both are susceptible to framing effects. An effective messaging strategy should consider the powerful role that political ideology plays in interpreting human rights information. Liberals begin with considerably higher baseline support for human rights issues, and this support is bolstered by information emphasizing the suffering of the victims of abuse. First-person narratives of prisoner abuse and worker abuse, however, did not significantly move conservative attitudes, and various prominent arguments against torture were unpersuasive. Instead, only a graphic image of an injured prisoner moved conservatives to be more opposed to the practice of torture.

Ultimately, recruiting advocates from both the left and the right means crafting human rights information that recognizes and speaks to these deeper ways in which ideology affects how we perceive human rights abuse.