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Cultural cognitive reality monitoring

My Yale colleague Marcia Johnson in psych dept has written some really cool papers on "cultural reality monitoring" (abstracts & links below). The basic idea is that institutions perform for members of a group a cognitive certification/validation role with respect to perceptions, belief, memories and like mental phenomena much akin to the certification/validation role that certain parts of the brain play for an individual. There's an element of analogy here, but also an element of identity: the cognitive processes that individuals use to "monitor reality" are in fact oriented by the functioning of the institutions.

There are a lot of parallels between Johnson's work and Mary Douglas's. But unlike Douglas (see How Institutions Think, in particular), Johnson is trying to cash out the idea of "what we see is who we are" with a set of individual-level psychological mechanisms, not a "functionalist" theory that sees collectives as agents.

By "psychologizing" cultural theory (here I'm scripting Johnson into a role that she doesn't explicitly present herself as filling; but I am pretty sure she wouldn't object!), Johnson does something very helpful for it: she supplies cultural theory with some creditable behavioral mechanisms, ones that hang together conceptually, have points of contact with a wide variety of (to some extent parallel, and to some extent competing) empirical programs in the social sciences, and are suggestive of and amenable to lots of meaningful empirical testing.

At the same time, by "culturizing" psychology, Johnson does something very useful for it: she furnishes it with a plausible (and again testable) account of the source of individual differences, one that explains how the single set of mechanisms known to psychology can generate systematic divergence between members of different social groups. (It's a lot more complicated, I'm afraid, than "slow" & "fast" ....)

Johnson's work thus helps to bridge Douglas's cultural theory of risk and Slovic's psychometric one, the two major theories of risk perception of the 20th & 21st centuries.

Johnson, M.K. Individual and Cultural Reality Monitoring. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 560, 179-193 (1998)

What is the relationship between our perceptions, memories, knowledge, beliefs, and expectations, on one hand, and reality, on the other? Studies of individual cognition show that distortions may occur as a by-product of normal reality-monitoring processes. Characterizing the conditions that increase and decrease such distortions has implications for understanding, for example, the nature of autobiographical memory, the potential suggestibility of child and adult eyewitnesses, and recent controversies about the recovery of repressed memories. Confabulations and delusions associated with brain damage, along with data from neuroimaging studies, indicate that the frontal regions of the brain are critical in normal reality monitoring. The author argues that reality monitoring is fundamental not only to individual cognition but also to social/cultural cognition. Social/cultural reality monitoring depends on institutions, such as the press and the courts, that function as our cultural frontal lobes. Where does normal social/cultural error in reality monitoring end and social/cultural pathology begin?


Johnson, M.K. Reality monitoring and the media. Applied Cognitive Psychology 21, 981-993 (2007).

The study of reality monitoring is concerned with the factors and processes that influence the veridicality of memories and knowledge, and the reasonableness of beliefs. In thinking about the mass media and reality monitoring, there are intriguing and challenging issues at multiple levels of analysis. At the individual level, we can ask how the media influence individuals' memories, knowledge and beliefs, and what determines whether individuals are able to identify and mitigate or benefit from the media's effects. At the institutional level, we can ask about the factors that determine the veridicality of the information presented, for example, the institutional procedures and criteria used for assessing and controlling the quality of the products produced. At the inter-institutional level we can consider the role that the media play in monitoring the products and actions of other institutions (e.g. government) and, in turn, how other institutions monitor the media. Interaction across these levels is also important, for example, how does individuals' trust in, or cynicism about, the media's institutional reality monitoring mechanisms affect how individuals process the media and, in turn, how the media engages in intra- and inter-institutional reality monitoring. The media are interesting not only as an important source of individuals' cognitions and emotions, but for the key role the media play in a critical web of social/cultural reality monitoring mechanisms.


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