By M. Amedeo Tumolillo and Alana Conner, Ph.D.
People can — and do — argue endlessly over what causes someone to pick up a firearm and start killing. Sidestepping this question of motivation, research
from criminologist Adam Lankford shows that the more guns a country has, the more mass shootings it will suffer
. Likewise, a study
in the Annals of Internal Medicine
finds that greater gun access is associated with more suicides and homicides.
Why, then, does the United States continually fail to pass laws that would do more to limit the availability of weapons?
Perhaps we're talking about the problem wrong. The New York Times
columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests we frame gun violence as a public health issue
. Yet that approach would likely turn off conservatives, who already tend to dislike government involvement in people's welfare. Also, research shows that the abstract, large-scale statistics that form the backbone of many public health appeals — including Kristof's — often fail to motivate people to change
Leverage the values of the person you're trying to convince.
"There are not a lot of approaches to political persuasion that show consistent effects, and moral reframing is one that can work," Willer said in an interview with SPARQ. To sway conservatives, for instance, "you could make an argument that gun laws that encourage responsible gun ownership are consistent with family values, patriotism, and American tradition."
Other ideas that resonate with conservatives include group loyalty, respect for authority, order, and purity, notes Willer.
Applying Willer’s research, a message to your Second Amendment activist friend might read: "Patriotic Americans need tougher gun laws to protect their country."
Note that, when it comes to guns, the times are changing.
Saying that your crew is doing things differently now can cause people to adopt a new behavior
, find SPARQ graduate affiliate Gregg Sparkman and SPARQ faculty affiliate Greg Walton
. Their research
examines the unwritten rules governing people's behavior (that is, social norms
) as those rules are changing, a concept known as dynamic social norms.
Sparkman and Walton found that messages about people increasingly conserving water and limiting their intake of meat led others to use less water in a laundromat and eat less meat at a cafe.
Using guns is a different behavior than washing clothes or snacking on a hamburger. Yet "just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change," Sparkman told Stanford News
Sparkman also noted in an interview with SPARQ that the believability of the change you're highlighting is important. Find stories and data to support your claim
. For instance, an email to your pro-gun friend that applied both dynamic norms and moral reframing could look something like this: "To protect American traditions, conservatives are increasingly supporting laws that limit access to assault weapons."
Speak to the self of your conservative friend.
Conservatives see themselves as interdependent — they emphasize their similarities to others and home in on their role in a network of relationships. They are rooted in tradition, history, and place. Liberals more often perceive themselves as independent — they focus on their individuality, uniqueness, and freedom from tradition, history, and place.
You're speaking the wrong language if you're encouraging your anti-regulation friend to break free from her group’s way of thinking, or lecturing her about an individual’s right to safety. Instead, talk about her interdependent concerns: What are the biggest threats to her neighborhood, regardless of what the 5 o’clock news says? What policies will most protect her family?
Researchers have not yet tested whether these techniques would change opinions about gun control laws. Yet given the toll that firearms continue to take, and America's seeming inability to change, these ideas are worth trying.
What do you think about trying to change conservatives' minds using these steps? Email us your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Amedeo Tumolillo is SPARQ's media director, and Alana Conner is the center's executive director.