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Two theories of "values," "identity" & "politically motivated reasoning"

This is a bit of correspondence with a thoughtful scholar & friend who was commenting on The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm.

He stated,

Biggest question [for me] is what is the relationship between values and identities. You make clear that people can be acting protect any type prior but those two seem distinct in some ways and may benefit from more discussion. . . . .

[I am interested in the] larger question about whether you would call cultural cognition orientations an identity. The question arose because [I have a colleague] who is writing . . . on cases of identity-value conflict such as when a minority holds distinct values from the modal member of his/her identity group.

My response:

I’m eager to offer a response or acknowledge I don’t have a very good one to the sort of “value-identity” conflict you are envisioning. 

But I think we need to "iterate" a bit more in order to converge on a common conception of the issue here.

So I'm not going to try to address the "identity-value" conflict right off. Instead, I am going to discuss different understandings of how "values" & "identity" relate to one another in a research program that looks at the sort of "fact polarization" of interest to cultural cognition & other conceptions of PMR.

I'll start w/ two theories of why one might measure "values" to operationalize the source of "motivation" in PMR: dissonance avoidance & status protection.  

As a preliminary point, neither theory understands the sorts of "values" being measured as what  motivates information processing.  For both, the theoretically posited "motivator" is some unobserved (latent) disposition that causes the observable expression of "values," which are then treated simply as "indicators" or imperfect measures of that latent disposition.  

For that reason, both theories are agnostic on whether the relevant values are "truly, really" "political," "cultural" or something else.  All "value" frameworks are just alternative measures of the same unobserved latent dispositions.  The only issue is what measurement strategy works best for explanation, prediction, & prescription -- a criterion that will itself be specific to the goal of the research (e.g., I myself use much more fine-grained indicators, corresponding to much narrower specifications of the underlying dispositions, when I'm doing "field based" science communication in a region like S.E. Florida than I do when I'm participating in a scholarly conversation about mass opinion formation in "American society": the constructs & measurement instruments in former context wouldn't have same traction in latter context but the ones w/ most traction in latter furnish less in the former, where the consumers of the information are trying to do something that is advanced by a framework fitted more to their conditions).

Okay, the 2 theories:

1. Dissonance avoidance (DA). We might imagine that as "political beings" individuals are like diners at a restaurant that serves a "fixe prixe" menu of "ideologies" or "worldviews" or whathaveyou. After making their selections, it would be psychologically painful for these individuals to have to acknowledge that the world is configured in a way that forecloses achieving states of affairs associated with their preferred "worldview"or "ideology" or whatever: e.g., that unconstrained private orderings of the sort prized by individualists will burden the natural environment with toxic byproducts that make such a way of life unsustainable. They are therefore motivated to construe information in a manner that "fits" the evidence on risk and like facts to positions ("beliefs") supportive of policies congenial to their worldviews & unsupportive of policies uncongenial to the same.

2. Status protection (SP).  DA is a relatively individualistic conception of PMR; SP is more "social."  On this account, individual well-being is understood to be decisively linked to membership in important "affinity groups," whose members are bound together by their shared adherence to ways of life. Cultivating affective styles that evince commitment to the positions conventionally associated with these groups will be essential to signaling membership in and loyalty to one or another of them.  "Policy" positions will routinely bear such associations. But sometimes risks and like policy-relevant facts will come to bear social meanings (necessarily antagonistic ones in relation to the opposing groups) that express group membership &  loyalty too.  In those cases, PMR will be a mode of information processing rationally suited to forming the affective styles that reliably & convincingly express an individual's "group identity."

Avoiding the psychic disappointment of assenting to facts uncongenial to an individual's personal "policy preferences" is not the truth-extrinsic goal that "motivates" cognition on this view.  Status protection--i.e., the maintenance of the sort of standing in one's group essential to enjoying access to the benefits, material and emotional, that membership imparts--is.

Okay, those are the two theories.

But let me be clear: neither of these theories is "true"! 

Not because some other one is -- but because no theories are.  All theories are simplified, imperfect "models"-- or pictures or metaphors, even! -- that warrant our acceptance to the extent that they enable us to do what we want to do w/ an empirical research program: enlarge our capacity to explain, predict & prescribe.

On this basis, I view SP as "true" & DA "false."

For now at least.

But in any case, my question is whether your & your colleague's question --whether "cultural cognition orientations" are "an identity" -- can be connected to this particular account of how "values," "identities," & PMR are connected?  If so, then, I might have something more helpful to say!  If not, then maybe what you have to say about why not will help me engage this issue more concretely.


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Reader Comments (7)

I'm not sure that these are necessarily so distinct:

December 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark B.

I have long argued in these threads that many people who are sharply divided by identity-orientation largely share similar values - such as that the rights of free speech should be protected, or that economic policies should target the most good for the most people. Many people, across affinity groups share those values,but largely feel that people in different identity groups don't have those same values.

That leads to situations such as where I'm told that I'm a statist authoritarian who wants a totalitarian government to shut down the free speech of anyone I disagree with. Engagement on issues that touch on ideological identification often breaks down in to such polemical bickering, where people attribute their differences to differences in values, whereas in reality (IMO), they are simply reverse-engineering through identity-protective cognition to strengthen their sense of self by identifying, and demonizing, an "other."

It is quite possible to engage on polarizing issues w/o such a dynamic taking place. The principles of stakeholder dialog, participatory democracy, and conflict resolution offer an alternative.

December 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


If they generate equivalent explanations, predictions, prescriptions, then I would think it's unimportant to argue about them--unless one were more suited to exciting conjecture, another thing a theory does & is good for.

But in fact, I think the theories make different predictions.

Imagine I have an experimental design in which I manipulate subjects' perceptions of the association of a belief w/ membership in & loyalty to an identity-defining affinity group & assess their reaction to factual information that implies the infeasibility of some policy associated with the subjects "values."

Presumably DA predicts that the manipulation won't matter: the information implies that a policy associated with one's values is not attaitaintable-- & should thus motivate resistance to the informatoin regardless of what one perceives assent to the information will do for his or her status wi/ the affinity group.

SP, in contrast, says the manipulation should matter: people will be motivated to protect their group status and thus will be more or less resistant to the information depending on the manipulation. If dissonance is something they want to avoid, they'll adjust their understanding of how their values map onto policies or states of affairs-- in which case we can understand "dissonance avoidance" to be endogenous to status protection -- something that is explained by *it*.

I can think of studies like that.

December 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I'm confused.

The usual interpretation of '"value" as far as I am aware is an assignment of moral utlity (judgements of goodness) to various ways of living. For example, people may value autonomy more highly than purity, or vice versa, or value equality of outcome over equality of opportunity. These choices are not matters of fact - you can't deduce an "ought" from an "is".

Related to these there are clusters of associated beliefs, narratives, arguments, examples, and historical/cultural baggage that are correlated with the groups that hod particular beliefs. The association of these with the value propensity is partly of necessity (they have to support and argue for the desired goals and their superiority over other outcomes) and partly the semi-arbitrary result of contingent history. That skin colour is an issue but hair colour is not is a matter of accidental history. It's not logically necessary to holding the values in question.

And then there is the third category of "identity", which are the signs and criteria people use to recognise membership of certain clusters - defining "us" and "them". There are clusters of belief that aren't seen as social divisions, and social divisions that aren't based on belief. (e.g. skin colour or nationality.)

The DA and SP hypotheses are yet another category of object: these are proposals for consensus-enforcement mechanisms.

I don't consider either of them to be plausible - both ignore the issue of how the clusters of beliefs are formed and evolved in the first place - but leaving that point aside, mechanisms don't address the question of whether the cultural groups identified are recognised as social groups by their members. I would have understood the issue to be: "Nobody classifies themselves as a 'hierarchical egalitarian' as such, it's a label placed on them by outside researchers. So how do these value-cluster categories relate to the identity groups as they are recognised by the members? How do the four quadrant 'cultural cognition' groups map onto the us/them 'identities' that their members would recognise? Are they actually as neatly aligned as indicated?"

I may be misunderstanding, but this is how I would interpret the question.

The answer to which is that of course they're not. It's a crude two-dimensional slice through a complex multi-dimensional, hierarchical semantic space, aiming to find a situation simple enough to analyse to act as a foothold before attempting the rest of the mountain. Explaining human behaviour is a hugely ambitious project.

But maybe that wasn't the question?

December 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


To start, I think you come out exactly where I do.

So why continue? Why not, I guess.

Notice that I don't even use world "value" in either explicating either SP or DA. They aren't "values" or "identities"; they are explanations, mechanisms, that (if they work as intended) help to structure alternative conjectures about how phenomena of interest work.

You start with a definition of a "value," as if we should work up from that in constructing a theory etc.

I think that approach gets things upside down.

I say: Start with the phenomenon to be explained by means of empirical interrogation. Create relatively simple theoretical constructs that make competing theories or hypotheses comprehensible & their opposing predictions & the like readily apparent. Design valid & reliable measures that reflect the constructs.

Then, "shut up & calculate."

In other words, avoid the invitation to engage in metaphysical or philosophical engagement with the constructs. They aren't real; they are just devices fit -- or not, depending on what the enable one to do -- for the purpose at hand: explaiing, predicting & prescribing.

It shoudl be clear from what I've said -- not to mention that I've said it before -- that no one identifies him- or herself as a "hierarchical individualist" etc-- just as no atom describes itself as a mini solar system.

How people coneive of & recognize the affinity groups that figure in a theory like SP is indeed complicated, I agree. Necessarily more complicated than will be any useful apparatus of the sort I've described as being appropriate for investigating those questions.

But it surprises me that in your expression of incomprehension as to how they do it you ignore the answer that is the one stressed over & over & over & over in the apparatus to which this blog is an appendage: by forming *beliefs" that reliably activate the expression of commitments that others recognize as characteristic of membership & loyalty to one or another status-conferring affinity group.

The "no ought from is" point, too, is not a challenge to this project.

It is the obvious beginning of it; the truism that creates the profound weirdness of what is to be explained

December 25, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"You start with a definition of a "value," as if we should work up from that in constructing a theory etc."

I start with a definition of a value because that was part of the question:-
“Biggest question [for me] is what is the relationship between values and identities."

"But it surprises me that in your expression of incomprehension as to how they do it you ignore the answer that is the one stressed over & over & over & over in the apparatus to which this blog is an appendage: by forming *beliefs" that reliably activate the expression of commitments that others recognize as characteristic of membership & loyalty to one or another status-conferring affinity group."

Yes. I deliberately skipped that discussion ("leaving that point aside...") because we've discussed my disagreement with it before, and I didn't want to distract from the question of what the question actually was by reviving an old and stale argument. I didn't think it would answer your correspondent's question anyway.
(My confusion was purely over what the question was, not the putative answers...)

Happy to digress, if anyone is interested. But I thought I'd at least wait to see if your correspondent agreed/disagreed about the question or my thoughts on it. :-)

December 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Sounds good. I will be sure he sees your response!

happy holidays

December 26, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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