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Why do contested cultural meanings go extinct?

In response to couple days ago's post on motivated perception of hot/cold weather, Random Assignment/David Nussbaum asked a question ineresting enough for me to give an answer so long & drawn out & worthy of a better response that I decided to turn the exchange into a separate post in the hope that it might provoke others to weigh in.

DN's question:

I'm curious, have you ever analyzed what happens in cases where beliefs do (eventually) yield to evidence? What does that process look like in the real world? I know you can get people to be more open using self-affirmation, but I'm thinking more about changes that happen "in the wild". So when allowing women to vote didn't destroy the entire moral fabric of society (leaving the opportunity to do so open to gay marriage), how did people's views change? Did they come to accept that they were wrong? Or did the people who believed it would just get replaced by new people who didn't believe it after they died? For a topic like climate change that's probably too slow a process.

My response:

Dave--that's an interesting question b/c of the "in the wild" part. 

As I see it, what are talking about is how people who disagree about some risk or other policy-consequenital fact converge following a period of culturally motivated dissensus. We reject the explanation "b/c they finally all see the evidence & agree" on the ground that it doesn't get the premise: that in this condition people will assign weight to evidence only when it is congenial to their cultural predispositions. Accordingly, in cases in which people converge after being "shown evidence," the explanation, to be interesting, has to identify how & why the cultural meaning of the issue changed, relieving the pressure on both sides to engage in biased assimilation of the evidence.

You note that in laboratory settings, "self-affirmation" can "buffer" the identity threatening implications of a proposition that is hostile to a message recipient's cultural identity and thereby neutralize the influence of motivated reasoning (leading to open-mindedness). See Sherman, D.K. & Cohen, G.L. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 38 183-242 (Academic Press, 2006).

But you ask about real world examples.

My favorite is smoking. People love to say, "See: the impact of the Surgeon General's REport of 1964 shows that people eventually can be persuaded by evidence." In fact, peak for cigarette smoking in US occurred circa 1979. It declined after public health advocates initiated a vicious and viciously successful social meaning campaign that obliterated all the various positive cultural meanings associated with smoking (or most of them) and stigmatized cigarette use as "stupid," "weak," "inconsiderate," "repulsive," etc. At that point, people not only accepted the evidence in the SG's 1964 Report but started to accept all sorts of overblown claims about 2nd hand smoke etc. Yup -- it was all about "eventually accepting evidence"; nothing to do with social meanings there... (not). (I discuss the issue, and relevant sources including 2000 Surgeon General's Report on smoking & social norms, in an essay entitled The Cognitively Illiberal State.)

But that's not really responsive to your query, or at least isn't as I'm going to understand it. That was "in the wild" but reflects a deliberate and calculated effort (although not a very precise one; the public health people have a heavily stocked soicial-meaning regulation arsenal, but every weapon in it is nuclear...) to obliterate a contested meaning. What about social meanings dying out by "natural causes"-- that is, through unguided historical and social influences? That certainly has to happen and it would be really cool & instructive to have examples.

Nuclear power is close, I think. In any case, the issue isn't nearly so radioactive (so to speak) for the left as it was in 1970s & earily 1980s. Egalitarian communitarians (of sort who agitated Douglas & Wildavsky into emitting Risk & Culture) were so successful at stigmatizing nuclear that it basically was taken off the table & disappeared from cultural consciousness; guess its toxic meaning had a half life of 30 yrs or so. But I overstate. The issue of nuclear waste does still generate cultural division, just not as much as it used to or maybe just not as much as, say, climate change or guns. Likely it could be reactivated-- who knows. 

But in any event, it would be nice to have an account of culturally contested risks or like factual issues that really did die out & become extinct all on their own.

You mention the dispute over consequences of women's suffrage ... Guess you've never read this? John, R.L., Jr & Lawrence, W.K. Did Women's Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government? Journal of Political Economy 107, 1163-1198 (1999).


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Reader Comments (3)

Seems to me there are two aspect to DN's question, one of which isn't addressed by the smoking example -- how do cultural meanings change without a concerted effort? -- and one that is -- whether or not there's an effort, do individuals change their minds, or do you just get new people with pre-changed minds? I think the second question is as intriguing as the first, and the smoking example seems to indicate that, at least in some situations, individuals can change their minds, even when earlier beliefs had cultural stakes attached. I'd be interested to hear from someone who knows something about Prohibition, too. I imagine there were tons of people who had negative factual perceptions of alcohol in the early 20s but not in the early 30s. Assuming there were strong cultural divisions at both endpoints -- I know embarrassingly little about the period -- you could look at the shift and infer whether people with a cultural investment at enactment changed their minds. (That's more 'in the wild' than cigarettes, maybe, but there were still political efforts.) And DK, not long ago you posted about an emerging consensus that private handgun ownership should be permitted. I'd imagine there are associated factual beliefs about the dangers/protective benefits of ownership. That consensus is growing more slowly, perhaps, but it would be interesting to tease out what happened -- Heller and Macdonald and what else? -- even between 1999 and 2011, to determine why this issue has become less culturally salient.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMW

A few follow-up thoughts:

This is obviously a huge topic and there are many ways to approach it. One that strikes me as interesting, given where the cultural cognition project is coming from, is that perhaps it's not the facts that change minds but who is convinced by them. For example, when Bush-appointed Sec. of Defense Gates and other high ranking military officials begin to support the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, it allows people who are a part of that culture to accept evidence that openly gay service members don't impair morale. The people may not even have to be prominent cultural icons, it may be enough that some critical mass of people you know begin to change their minds.

On that note, it's worth mentioning a really fascinating book by economist Timur Kuran called Private Truths, Public Lies. He argues, as I understand you do (DK), that there's a cost to publicly having an opinion that is contrary to social expectations. This leads to pluralistic ignorance -- although many people may privately hold an opinion, they are reluctant to express it in public because it appears to them that they are part of a very small minority. Even though there are many others who share their opinion, they are invisible because they keep their views private. It is only when a critical mass of people go public with their beliefs that we recognize that many people shared the beliefs all along. The fable of the Emperor's New Clothes illustrates this perfectly: even though everyone sees that the emperor is naked, until someone says so publicly, the belief remains private. It seems that this could help explain why people who stray from cultural orthodoxy are very quickly and forcefully discredited.

The other thing I wanted to mention, relating back to affirmation, is that over time perhaps reality gets less threatening. What seems like a big change that threatens to overturn the social order turns out to have no major negative consequences and simply becomes integrated into the new normal. People don't even realize they're changing their minds -- in some sense they act like they believed all along what they once vehemently disbelieved.

Back to affirmation, my understanding of the process, although there's still no definitive empirical support, is that it makes threats less threatening by putting them into a larger perspective where, overall, things are fine. To flip that around, it seems that the more threatening the overall situation, the more resistant people should be on any specific issue. If people feel that their cultural worldview is under threat then they should be less open to any aspect of it being criticized. Conversely, if their cultural worldview feels safe, then some tweaking around the edges doesn't seem so bad. That's why, it seems to me, the culture wars are so effective at polarizing people. The idea that Christianity is under attack, or that we're being overrun by immigrants, not only mobilizes people on those issues, but makes them more closed minded in general.

I wrote a short blog post a few weeks back that could be understood in a related way. Basically, the idea there was that people should be more conservative when they felt that change was happening very quickly. Therefore, if one were to experimentally manipulate how fast social change felt, we should see differences in how conservative people are and how open to change. The post is here.

July 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave Nussbaum

I can think of a number of public policy examples that I don't think are that helpful to sort out whether socially-driven meanings can be made extinct by scientifically-constructed truths (scientific discoveries of truth) becoming more broadly acceptable. (I agree with cultural cognition of risk theory on the mindset changing and then the scientifically-constructed truths being accepted, but I'll go with this for now since it seems to be the original inquiry.)

Prohibition doesn't qualify, from my perspective, as science and scientific discovery was not the driving force behind it. Same with hand gun control. Science is not the driving force there. If one is looking for something somehow equivalent to climate change (which I can't help feeling is the basis of the inquiry, a desire to replicate for the climate change case a previously successful societal change), it would have to involve a scientific discovery that was resisted at first but that resulted in substantial numbers of people agreeing to change their risk assessments and then their behavior.

I am wondering if vaccination isn't an interesting line of inquiry to pursue, being a scientific discovery that had direct public policy consequences, and one having a long history of resistance for such a variety of reasons that essentially every cultural worldview could find reasons for resisting, but sometimes they resist en masse and sometimes they don't. ( And each new vaccine meets new resistance for the old reasons.

What I suspect we would see is that resistance to scientifically-driven changes can and will be "reactivated," as Dan Kahan suggests above. With climate change, assuming it could focus on some particular solutions and begin implementing them, as new solutions become advisable or old solutions prove to be insufficient, new resistance would be inevitable.

July 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

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