As a Brit living in New York, what a revelation to be here during the Presidential race, while watching Brexit unfold from afar. Michael Gove’s assertion that “people in this country had enough of experts” carried with it the same faux resentment I’ve seen candidates here direct against Wall Street and Washington, and the whiff of Trump’s anti-intellectualism.

As someone who cut their teeth working for Blair’s pollster, Philip Gould, it’s been depressing to see a famed electionwinning machine disintegrate into Twitter rants, but one I recognise from ugly conflicts raging within the GOP. Zero-sum thinking disfigures debate, ranging all the way from Trump’s warnings that this is the last chance to “Make America Great Again”, to the apocalyptic arguments deployed so frequently by Remain and Leave campaigns.

How do we communicate in this intensely emotional environment? As qualitative researchers, we know that facts and figures alone are rarely enough to motivate change, and the importance of getting to our implicit reactions. It’s what’s driven our profession’s interest in behavioural economics. However, much of this toolkit is best suited to exploring decision-making toward products and services, not for understanding how we look at issues of the utmost importance to ourselves, our families, communities and nations.

Connecting to values

Here, qualitative researchers should seek inspiration from moral foundations theory — a branch of psychology popularised by the academic Jonathan Haidt in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. Moral foundations theory looks at how we come to a stance on an issue or cause, and similar to other disciplines researchers draw upon, it places emphasis on seeking out the ultimate cause of how we arrive at our attitudes, rather than taking immediate answers at face value, and with little interpretation of what sits behind those answers.

Haidt outlines how attitudes are shaped by six moral foundations — fairness, care, authority, sanctity, freedom and loyalty — which operate, in his words, like “taste buds on our tongues”. We each respond differently or are drawn more strongly by some of these foundations. Take those on the left and more centre-left causes — here foundations around fairness and care are likely to be more pronounced, for example, as seen by calls for big companies and the wealthy to pay more. Those on the right and conservative causes tend to draw more on a foundation such as freedom — escaping overzealous state interference. These boundaries should not be seen as cut and dried — witness how conservatives in the US and UK have campaigned against modern-day slavery, an issue resonating with multiple foundations.

What I find immensely helpful with moral foundations theory is how each one has a positive and negative side — it’s not just fairness on its own, but fairness vs cheating; and sanctity vs disgust, and so on. So, left-wing causes may stress fairness when it comes to looking after the poor through generous welfare payments, whereas conservatives may shine more of a light on cheating by stressing the need to clamp down on ‘benefit cheats’.

Consider environmental causes — some will place more weight on sanctity, and talk about protecting our resources for future generations; others will seek to trigger its counterpoint, disgust, by attacking a multinational for destroying the planet.

Qualitative is at its best — and most distinctive — when it helps clients deal with ambivalence. Not everything can be reduced down to a binary choice. Where moral foundations theory is hugely useful is in providing a framework to tease out competing tensions on an issue. An initial reading of attitudes toward immigration may result in a conclusion that public attitudes are unremittingly hostile. Anti-immigration messages trigger foundations about being protected from ‘the other’, not being treated like a mug, and the sanctity of the ‘homeland’. However, as seen in reactions to the refugee team at the recent Olympics or highly distressing images of child refugees, foundations around caring for the most vulnerable, freedom from persecution, and empathy with a wider sense of brotherhood can be evoked, shifting stances.

The corporate is the political

As brands find themselves dealing with more political issues, and are expected to weigh in on societal questions, this theory has a wider application than just looking at elections. Controversies in the food and drink sector — minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes, or bans on promoting ‘junk food’ to kids — can be understood through the prism of moral foundations theory.

Are you more swayed by arguments centred on the freedom of the individual to make up his or her own mind, and not to be told what to do by the ‘nanny state’? Or do you feel the government should seek to intervene to protect the most vulnerable — whether that’s the poor, children, or those prone to alcohol abuse?

Beyond politics, it can help us explore ambivalence when it comes to corporate issues. Consider our relationship with technology — perhaps the defining sector of our times, and exerting broader cultural influence than its mere products.

We cherish the creativity technology gives us — but we are anxious about privacy and security. Here, we can see foundations around freedom go up against foundations around care and authority, and wider tensions around where we draw the line between the desire for individual liberty versus wanting protection.

Antidote to the USP

Moral foundations theory also acts a much-needed corrective against the obsession with finding one USP or core message — whether that’s in politics or business.

Haidt skilfully shows how the left often loses out by myopically focusing on care and fairness, whereas conservative messaging resonates with a greater range of foundations, such as freedom, loyalty and sanctity. Narrowing down too much is counter-productive.

If we also look at one of the greater attitude shifts in recent times — gay marriage — here, too, advocates won as they made people with a very broad set of perspectives see same sex marriage as consistent with their values. As the journalist Jo Becker has described, by moving from a dry pitch about gaining equal access to benefits and legal rights, to a richer narrative about values around fairness, loyalty, freedom and a level playing field, advocates gained momentum.

As we all consider how to motivate people, thinking about a broad palette of values rather than one USP is a powerful antidote to much conventional thinking.