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« Who *are* these guys? Cultural cognition profiling, part 2 | Main | Effective graphic presentation of climate-change risk information? (Science of science communication course exercise) »

Who *are* these guys? Cultural cognition profiling, part 1

Okay, this is the first of what I anticipate will be a series of posts (somewhere between 2 and 376 in number). In them, I want to take up the question of who the people are who are being described by the “cultural worldview” framework that informs cultural cognition. 

The specific occasion for wanting to do this is a query from Jen Briselli, which I reproduce below.  In it, you’ll see, she asks me to set forth brief sketches of the “typical” egalitarian communitarian, hierarchical individualist, hierarchical communitarian, and hierarchical individualist. This is a reasonable request.  In my immediate reply, I say that any such exercise has to be understood as a simplification or a heuristic; the people who have any one of these identities will be multifaceted and complex, and also diverse despite having important shared understandings.  

I think that’s a reasonable point to make, too – yet I then beg off on (or at least defer) actually responding to her request. That wasn’t so reasonable of me! 

So I will do as she asks.  

But I thought it would be useful, as well as interesting, to first ask others who are familiar with “cultural cognition” framework as I and others are elaborating it, how they might answer this question.  So that’s what I’m doing in this post, which reproduces the exchange between Jen and me. 

Below the exchange, I also set fort the sort of exposition of the “cultural worldview” framework, which we adapt from Mary Douglas, that typically appears in our papers.  I think this is basically the right way to set things out in the context of this species of writing. But the admitted abstractness of it is what motivates Jen’s reasonable request for something more concrete, more accessible, more engaging.

I’ll give my own answer to Jen’s question in the next post or two. I promise!

Jen Briselli:

I have a quick question/exercise for you: 

I am working through the process of creating what are essentially 'personas' (though I'm keeping them abstract) for each of the four quadrants of the group/grid cultural cognition map. While I feel pretty comfortable characterizing some of the high-level concerns and values of each worldview, I would certainly be silly to think my nine months' immersion in your research comes anywhere near the richness of your own mental model for this framework. So, to supplement my own work, I'd love to know how you would describe each worldview, in the most basic and simplified way, to someone unfamiliar with cultural cognition. (Well, maybe not totally unfamiliar, but in the process of learning it). That is, how do you joke about these quadrants? How do you describe them at cocktail parties?

For example, I found the fake book titles that you made up for the [HPV vaccine risk] study to be a great of example for personifying a prototypical example of each worldview. And I am interested in walking that line between prototype and stereotype, because that's where good design happens- we can oversimplify and stereotype to get at something's core, then step back up a few levels to find the sweet spot for understanding.

So, if you'd be so kind, what few words or phrases would you use to complete the following phrases, for each of the four worldviews? 

1) I feel most threatened by: 

2) What I value most: 

and optional but would be fun to see your answers:

3) the typical 'bumper sticker' or phrase that embodies each worldview: (for example- egalitarian communitarians might pick something like  "one for all and all for one!" I'm curious if you have any equivalents for the others rattling around in your brain- serious or absurd, or anywhere in between.)


What you are asking about here is complicated; I'm anxious to avoid a simple response that might not be clearly understood as very very simplified.

The truth is that I don't think people of these types are likely to use bumper stickers to announce their allegiances. Some would, certainly; but they are very extreme, unusual people! If not extreme in their values, extreme in how much they value expressing them. The goal is to understand very ordinary people -- & I hope that is who we are succeeding in modeling. 

I feel reasonably confident that I can find those people by getting them to respond to the sorts items we use in our worldview scales, or by doing a study that ties their perceptions of source credibility to the cues used in the HPV study. 

But I think if I said, "Watch for someone who gets in your face & says 'you should encourage your young boys to be more sensitive and less rough and tough' "-- that would paint an exaggerated picture. 

I think we do have reliable ways to pick out people who have the sorts of dispositions I'm talking about. But we live in a society where people interact w/ all sorts of others & actually are mindful not to force people different from them to engage in debates over issues like this. 

From Kahan, D.M., Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk, in Handbook of Risk Theory: Epistemology, Decision Theory, Ethics and Social Implications of Risk. (eds. R. Hillerbrand, P. Sandin, S. Roeser & M. Peterson) 725-760 (Springer London, Limited, 2012), pp. 727-28:

The cultural theory of risk asserts that individual’s should be expected to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce their commitment to one or another “cultural way of life” (Thompson, Ellis & Wildavsky 1990). The theory uses a scheme that characterizes cultural ways of life and supporting worldviews along two cross-cutting dimensions (Figure 1), which Douglas calls “group” and “grid” (Douglas, 1970; 1982). A “weak” group way of life inclines people toward an individualistic worldview, highly “competitive” in nature, in which people are expected to “fend for themselves” without collective assistance or interference (Rayner, 1992, p. 87). In a “strong” group way of life, in contrast, people “interact frequently in a wide range of activities” in which they “depend on one another” to achieve their joint ends. This mode of social organization “promotes values of solidarity rather than the competitiveness of weak group” (ibid., p. 87).

A  “high” grid way of life organizes itself through pervasive and stratified “role differentiation” (Gross & Rayner 1985, p. 6).  Goods and offices, duties and entitlements, are all “distributed on the basis of explicit public social classifications such as sex, color, . . . a bureaucratic office, descent in a senior clan or lineage, or point of progression through an age-grade system” (ibid, p. 6). It thus conduces to a “hierarchic” worldview that disposes people to “devote a great deal of attention to maintaining” the rank-based “constraints” that underwrite “their own position and interests” (Rayner 1990, p. 87).

Finally, a low grid way of life consists of an “egalitarian state of affairs in which no one is prevented from participation in any social role because he or she is the wrong sex, or is too old, or does not have the right family connections” (Rayner 1990, p. 87). It is supported by a correspondingly egalitarian worldview that emphatically denies that goods and offices, duties and entitlements, should be distributed on the basis of such rankings.

The cultural theory of risk makes two basic claims about the relationship between cultural ways of life so defined and risk perceptions. The first is that recognition of certain societal risks tends to cohere better with one or another way of life. One way of life prospers if people come to recognize that an activity symbolically or instrumentally aligned with a rival way of life is causing societal harm, in which case the activity becomes vulnerable to restriction, and those who benefit from that activity become the targets of authority-diminishing forms of blame (Douglas, 1966; 1992).

The second claim of cultural theory is that individuals gravitate toward perceptions of risk that advance the way of life they adhere to. “[M]oral concern guides not just response to the risk but the basic faculty of [risk] perception” (Douglas, 1985, p. 60). Each way of life and associated worldview “has its own typical risk portfolio,” which “shuts out perception of some dangers and highlights others,” in manners that selectively concentrate censure on activities that subvert its norms and deflect it away from activities integral to sustaining them (Douglas & Wildavsky 1982, pp. 8, 85). Because ways of life dispose their adherents selectively to perceive risks in this fashion, disputes about risk, Douglas and Wildavsky argue, are in essence parts of an “ongoing debate about the ideal society” (ibid, p. 36).

The paradigmatic case, for Douglas and Wildavsky, is environmental risk perception. Persons disposed toward the individualistic worldview supportive of a weak group way of life should, on this account, be disposed to react very dismissively to claims of environmental and technological risk because they recognize (how or why exactly is a matter to consider presently) that the crediting of those claims would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, forms of behavior they like. The same orientation toward environmental risk should be expected for individuals who adhere to the hierarchical worldview: in concerns with environmental risks, they will apprehend an implicit indictment of the competence and authority of societal elites. Individuals who tend toward the egalitarian and solidaristic worldview characteristic of strong group and low grid, in contrast, dislike commerce and industry, which they see as sources of unjust social disparities, and as symbols of noxious self-seeking, They therefore find it congenital to credit claims that those activities are harmful—a conclusion that does indeed support censure of those who engage in them and restriction of their signature forms of behavior (Wildavsky & Dake 1990; Thompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky 1990).


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  • Response
    Response: Thinking with Dan
    I’m going to start with my response to his (at this point two-post series) on cultural cognition “profiling”(1)(2). And I will start with where I find we are in agreement.

Reader Comments (15)

Thanks for posting this, Dan. I'm interested to see what type of responses you get. I've been posing this question to other as well. Despite this anxiety (and a very reasonable one we all would/should have)

I've been finding the mere act of asking, and the nature of the replies (even separate from the content of the replies) has been very very illuminating.

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I may be premature with this, in light of your promise of more posts on the theme, but one thing I've been wanting to say about the worldview grid has to do with what seems to me to be its relativism. That is, what counts as "egalitarian/communitarian" in one social group may not appear as such in another group -- may even, in fact, appear as "hierarchical/individualist" (activists at one end or the other of the political spectrum, for example, tend to lump people to the right or left of them into the opposite quadrant from their own). How then do you arrive at the "true" or correct designation for either a particular person's worldview or for a collection of more concrete beliefs/values? Do you try to find, perhaps, some sort of middle from which to judge, so that roughly equal numbers appear in both quadrants (and how would that balance the other two quadrants)? But how would you go about locating such a middle? And what do you do when the middle shifts?

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


1. within a particular "society" (there's no such thing but among a group for whom we are able to satisfy ourselves that the measures are operating reliably & validly), the incommensurablity of "what is a ..." will be ruled out analytically. That is, the measures decide who is what, regardless of what people think. Of course, if people didn't have a way to *recognize* who is "like" them, the measures probably would fail to explain variance in risk perception -- at least to the extent that the underlying mechanism is taken to be the disposition of people to consult w/ or conform to "like minded" others. The HPV study is the best "direct" evidence that there is (a) recogniton of cultural affinity as we measure it, and (b) some form of *conformity* to like-minded others (although I think are results in total are as "direct" as one needs to get & can; that is, if we make lots of well-formed hypotheses about what we'll observed based conditional on there being some unobserved mechanism, we're "observing" the mechanism in the only sense that really is possible).

2. I would emphatically concede your point, though, in *across* socieitie (or "cultures" in sense of different nations or groups). We have done some "cross-cultural cuclutral cognition" studies. They involve modifying the scales to achieve confidence that the co-variance structure of each nation's responses to the scale items is the same. At that point, we can feel pretty confident the scales are "measuring the same thing" in the two socieites. But in fact, that by itself doesn't allow us to be confident that the *intercepts* on the scales are commensurable; one society's members might, by convention, tend to express lower levels of agreement w/ survey items more strongly than another, so that even if the mean scores on the scales are "the same" across the two, the former is "less" of whatever the scale is measuring than the other.

An implication of this point -- and what I think is the point that's most important to you -- is that I can't be sure about the cultural outlooks of any society's members in an "absolute" sense. I am limited to saying howindividuals within any partciular society vary along the relevant dimensions. But it is possible they are varying wi/ a very limited portion of the "true" culture "space." Perhaps, e.g., everyone in US is "egalitarian indivisdualist," and so the 2x2 that I use is really internal to one quadrant of an "absolute" 2x2.

If this admission is in fact the one you were looking for, what is the upshot, do you think?

March 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

It seems to me that any given individual might appear in different places on your cultural map at different stages of their life and in fact, may appear in different quadrants at the same, depending on the cultural transaction or role they are currently engaged in.

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Perhaps, e.g., everyone in US is "egalitarian indivisdualist," and so the 2x2 that I use is really internal to one quadrant of an "absolute" 2x2.

If this admission is in fact the one you were looking for, what is the upshot, do you think?

I'm skeptical of an "absolute 2x2" in the first place, but the question would work as well if we replaced that phrase with "another, larger, or more comprehensive 2x2". The upshot, in any case, might be to add a qualifier to any answer to the question of who the people in a particular quadrant are -- a qualifier along the lines of "for this particular social group at this particular time." And I'd think that the problem of determining cultural groups across different societies also applies to sub-groups within a particularly defined society -- e.g., to different cultural regions in the US.

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Dan -

Maybe somewhat related to Larry's question...

I keep going back to a fundamental confusion I have about a key component of your research. Would you point me to a study or two that validate the distinctions that you make in "world views" independently of association with specific questions (and answers) that imply a politicized perspective or issues that carry obvious cultural or social baggage?

As one example of why I'm confused, it seems to me that views on "environmental risk" (as associated with restrictions on commerce and industry) is inherently political/tribal - and anything that you might learn about someone based on their views on environmental risk as so defined will not (necessarily) be generalizable to "world view"(or to their views on risk more generally) - but to a "world view" as expressed in a particular, already politicized context. I wonder if, when you measure opinions on environmental risk, you are measuring political ideology, and not really world views.

I think that the philosophical or "world view" outlooks of most people are more similar than they are different, although within politicized contexts world views might be translated more differently than similarly. Like my “conservative” friends (with the exception of extremists), I think that there should be no more regulation on commerce than what makes sense in terms of beneficial outcomes - but my definition of “makes sense” takes a different shape than theirs depending on context. The context is not philosophical or one of world view, but one of cultural association.

If I had polled Republicans about the healhcare mandate a couple of years ago, they would have indicated that laws requiring a penalty for non-participation would be a matter of "personal responsibility" and eliminating free-riders. A few years later, the healthcare mandate became for them unconstitutional government overreach. While their world view hasn't changed, the context surrounding how their world views gets expressed has shifted.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Hm.. a strange bit of html nonsense must have happened in my original comment up there... if you want to delete it, feel free. Here's what it was supposed to say:

Thanks for posting this, Dan. I'm interested to see what type of responses you get. I've been posing this question to others as well. Despite your anxiety (and a very reasonable one we all would/should have in this type of exercise):

I have found that in casual conversation, when I've attempted to give the "Clif Notes" version of cultural cognition (am I dating myself with that analogy?) to friends, most people are both a) very interested in the topic and in learning more and b) very cognizant of the oversimplification implied in a model like this, and in a quick one-off description that I may have just given.

Sometimes people will ask for more details- and I usually try to explain through examples of particular topics like climate change or nanotechnology- as you've suggested yourself- the mechanism for cognition is more important that 'types' of people here. But sometimes people will, on their own, conjure a more concrete mental model. "Oh, the egalitarian-communitarians are the folks like my parents who....." or "oh, I guess I can understand why my neighbor reacted the way he did to the new health care law... he has very hierarchical-individualist values." The way people connect some of these higher level abstractions to everyday concrete personalities can be very useful in teaching about cultural cognition- as long as we continue to warn (as you have here and others do as well) that stereotypes =/= archetypes and even archtypes =/= reality. Harnessing people's tendency to make concrete connections to the schema they already have in place can be very powerful- I'm just curious how best to do so, (while not abusing that power in the process).

I'm glad you posted this. I hope to see more replies and look forward to your next few posts as well. In my asking this question of others, the mere act of asking, and the nature of the replies (even separate from the content of the replies) has been very very illuminating.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen


I don't think I can point you to such studies, no. I don't see why such studies are needed to validate the scales, though. Indeed, I think what you see as "obvious cultural or social baggage" is what the scales are exactly what the scales are supposed to measure--competing sets of shared understandings about how society should be organized and what that entails about the best life for their members. The basic premise of the theory that the scales are being used to test is that those sorts of things inform people's perceptions of risks and related facts.

The important thing, if the theory and the measures are to teach us anything, is not that the "worldviews" be defined in some manner that is "independent" of "politics"; it is that the sort of political orientations they are measuring be analytically distinct from the kind of *factual beliefs* they are explaining. It would be very unedifying, e.g., if we posited an "enviornmentalist worldview" as the source of beliefs about the risks of climate change or nuclear power. But I don't think we are doing anything like that (does having a position on whether boys should be taught to be "rough & tough" imply anything about whether the earth is heating up?). Indeed, I think you are pointing out that the connections between cutlural worldviews and beliefs about various policy-relevant facts is largely a matter of historical happenstance.

What am I missing?

March 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


1. How would one test the view that worldviews are so radically "situational"?

2. Does such a view imply that people's beliefs about climate change, say, will shift depending on what "cultural transaction or role they are currently engaged in"? So that someone will give one response if he happens to participate in an on-line study from a computer terminal in his home & another response if he is doing the study on a computer at work?

Maybe I'm reading into your view the odd position that some "cultural theorists" sometimes (& only sometimes; I think for them it depends on what transaction or role they are currently engaged in!) advance -- that worldviews reside in "institutions" rather than in persons.... Do you in fact mean something else?

March 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Larry: There's no real stopping point, then, right? There's no unit -- society, region, subgroup, even individual -- where the device of the 2x2 will not be simplifying, or really effacing genuine differences. So then we just have to say -- well, what's the cost of such effacement? Can we learn someting if we ignore it over *this* domain ("U.S. over last xx yrs") -- or will we end up knowing less & being confused? I *know* for certain that "egalitarians" in US conflates ways of seeing things that are in fact quite different; but I can explain, predict, intervene in more satisfying ways w/ the theory all the same. But I know that if I take that same attitude about US & Canada-- I am going to produce gibberish. I know (for time being at least), too, that if I tweak the items a bit to account for "national level" differences, I can apply the same (admittedly simplified -- false, even) constructs to US & UK & Australia and get more of the kind of insight that I think I'm after.

This all seems perfectly acceptable to me. To you?

March 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

No, there's no real stopping point, but I think being aware of, and being public about, both the unit and the time period involved would help both communicator and audience in a practical way.

Just to be clear(er) about what I mean, though, note that a left-liberal, for example, will appear as hierarchical and individualist from the standpoint of a left-radical, but not from the standpoint of a right-liberal, and a similar conflation tends to occur on the other side of the political spectrum. Such relativized axes would also pertain to different regions within the US, so that what appears as hierarchical-individualist in blue states might not in red states, etc. So it's not just "national level" differences that you would need to tweak, but, depending on the audience or purpose, regional, political, or community level differences as well.

But, to ask a related but different question, do you think, in a given situation (social unit and time period), that the axes draw themselves -- i.e., are objective characteristics of the situation? Or would they be inescapably influenced by the standpoint of either the researcher or the practical communicator?

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Dan -

Thanks for the response. I get that my logic must be hard to follow here, because it isn't fully worked-out, and that your previous comment essentially highlighted a possible logical inconsistency...

Please note the bold below:

...exactly what the scales are supposed to measure--competing sets of shared understandings about how society should be organized and what that entails about the best life for their members.

My question is whether they measure how we think society *should* be organized as opposed to whether they measure our *perceptions* of how it *is* (or is not) organized - perceptions that aren't grounded in objective measurements or in underlying values - but that for the most part only reflect tribal affiliation.

If I disagree with my conservative neighbor about whether the climate is warming, I think it likely so *not* so much because we have different world views on how our society *should* be organized - but because we have different tribal affiliations that affect: (1) how we perceive society to be currently organized, (2) how we fall out on climate change and, (2) how we *express* our (largely similar) world views about how society *should* be organized.

To the extent that our differences are more a matter of how we express our world views (through translating them from different perceptions of how the world *is*), those superficial differences will be exacerbated when we are asked our opinions about issues that have obvious political baggage (and minimized if we are asked questions about our world views but that don’t have such obvious political baggage). To the extent that our opinions really are an indicator of differences in how society *should* be organized, it should be apparent in our expressed beliefs on issues that do not overlap with politicized issues.

Indeed, I think you are pointing out that the connections between cutlural worldviews and beliefs about various policy-relevant facts is largely a matter of historical happenstance.

Yes – I think that the connections are, essentially, arbitrary – a by-product of tribal affilation.

The important thing, if the theory and the measures are to teach us anything, is not that the "worldviews" be defined in some manner that is "independent" of "politics"; it is that the sort of political orientations they are measuring be analytically distinct from the kind of *factual beliefs* they are explaining.

This is very consistent with my point also. And so I’m wondering if what I’m struggling with here is more semantic than substitutive. But here is why I think it may be more than just semantics:

I think that a good way to move towards progress in debates such as the debate over climate change is to encourage people to become more aware of the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, and to get them to be meta-cognitive about their own reasoning process and about the potential influence of cultural cognition on their reasoning. I think that associating world views with perspectives on climate change can be an obstacle towards that goal. Focusing on a difference in world views, in my opinion, will likely have the result of making people *more* entrenched in their tribal foxholes. (It certainly seems to be the case as I observe how climate combatants react to your work on motivated reasoning in the climate wars).

I think that the differing world views between “realists” and “skeptics” are greatly over-stated (generally speaking). I see that very often when “skeptics” mistakenly see some great difference in my values from their values – because they are reverse engineering from my political perceptions about how our society *is* organized.

World views on how society should be organized sounds to me like values. What I value and what my “skeptical” neighbor values, in reality, are very similar. I’m thinking of the positions vs. interests paradigm. For me, the language of identifying different world views elevates positions over interests.

As I see it, “skeptics” and “realists” have (mostly) similar values and interests. To de-pollute the debate, the similarities in values and interests that we have in should be the point of focus – not our politicized perceptions that get expressed as differing world views. Then we can look together at how cultural cognition mediates our transition from similar values to differing positions (and to extend the parallel, how it mediates the transition from our similar world views about *should* to our perceptions of *is*).

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- very thoughtful. I will respond when I have more time (or can get away more successfully w/ stealing time from other things) to respond

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

A P.S.: The use of lines or axes in the worldview grid is probably misleading in its resemblance to math graphs, since there is no real zero point here. All you can really say is that such and such a position is more communitarian/less individualist than that, and similarly with other axes. The lines make it easier to draw a picture, but we're really talking about polarities that generate a spectrum of views, not distances from some cultural zero. And that may partially answer my own questions above, though I would still be interested in the degree of skew that a researcher/communicator brings to the analysis of any social unit.

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry: Yes. I meant to admit that in my answer to you. 0,0 is a sample mean; our 0,0 might be 111, 3999 in absolute culture space.

March 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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