Microtargeting with Moral Foundations Theory

Benjamin smiling.




Managing Director of Survey Research, Annenberg Public Policy Center

Project Summary

Psychographic microtargeting, which is the dissemination of persuasive messages to individual voters based on their predicted psychological makeup, is an emerging political campaign tactic. However, very little research has been done on the effectiveness of psychographic microtargeting. I used my CURF research grant to run an experiment that sought to test the persuasive potential of psychographic microtargeting based on Moral Foundations Theory, a psychological framework composed of five moral foundations that describe how people make moral decisions.

Participants were exposed to social media style ads about breaking up large corporations with a Fairness/Cheating moral foundation frame, a Loyalty/Betrayal moral foundation frame, or a generic non-moral foundation frame. The goal of the experiment was to determine whether the ads were persuasive to participants who highly valued the Fairness/Cheating and Loyalty/Betrayal moral foundations. While participants who were exposed to the moral foundation based ads were more likely to support breaking up corporations than participants who were not, the results were not statistically significant.

Throughout this experience, I think the most important thing I have learned is how difficult science can be. As one of my professors said, “soft science is the real hard science.” I have had to create dozens of iterations of my experiment to make sure I was asking clear questions and eliminating extraneous variables. Professor Winneg was an incredible resource throughout this process. I would like to thank CURF for their funding and support throughout this process, and I highly encourage any other Penn students to undertake an undergraduate research project before they graduate.