The motivation for this post is to respond to commentators--@Joshua & @HalMorris—who wonder, reasonably, whether there’s really much point in continuing to examine the relationship between cultural cognition & like mechanisms, on the one hand, and one or another element of science comprehension (cognitive reflection, numeracy, “knowledge of basic facts,” etc).
They acknowledge that evidence that cultural polarization grows in step with proficiency in critical reasoning is useful for, say, discrediting positions like the “knowledge deficit” theory (the view that public conflicts over policy-relevant science are a consequence of public unfamiliarity with the relevant evidence) and the “asymmetry thesis” (the positon that attributes such conflicts to forms of dogmatic thinking distinctive of “right wing” ideology.
But haven’t all those who are amenable to being persuaded by evidence on these points gotten the message by now, they ask?
I agree that the persistence of the “knowledge deficit” view and to a lesser extent the “asymmetry thesis” (which I do think is weakly supported but not nearly so unworthy of being entertained as “knowledge deficit” arguments) likely don’t justify sustained efforts at this point to probe the relationship between cultural cognition and critical reasoning.
But I disagree that those are the only reasons for continuing with—indeed, intensifying—such research.
On the contrary, I think focusing on science comprehension is critical to understanding cultural cognition; to forming an accurate moral assessment of it; and to identifying appropriate responses for managing its potential to interfere with free and reasoning citizens’ attainment of their ends, both individual and collective (Kahan 2015a, 2015b).
I should work more systematically how to convey the basis of this conviction.
But for now, consider these “two conceptions” of cultural cognition and rationality. Maybe doing so will foreshadow the more complete account—or better still, provoke you into helping me to work this issue out in a way that satisfies us both.
1. Cultural cognition as bounded rationality. Persistent public conflict over societal risks (e.g., climate change, nuclear waste disposal, private gun possession, HPV immunization of schoolgirls, etc.) is frequently attributed to overreliance on heuristic, “System 1” as opposed to conscious, effortful “System 2” information processing (e.g., Weber 2006; Sunstein 2005). But in fact, the dynamics that make up the standard “bounded rationality” menagerie—from the “availability effect” to “base rate neglect,” from the “affect heuristic” to the “conjunction fallacy”—apply to people of all manner of political predispositions, and thus don’t on their own cogently explain the most salient feature of public conflicts over societal risks: that people are not simply “confused” about the facts on these issues but systematically divided on them on political grounds.
One account of cultural cognition views it as the dynamic that transforms the mechanisms of “bounded rationality” into fonts of political polarization (Kahan, Slovic, Braman, & Gastil 2006 Kahan 2012). Cultural predispositions thus determine the valence of the sensibilities that govern information processing according in the manner contemplated by the “affect heuristic” (Peters, Burraston & Mertz 2004; Slovic & Peters 1996). The same for the “availability effect”: the stake individuals have in forming “beliefs” that express and reinforce their connection to cultural groups determines what sorts of risk-relevant facts they notice, what significance to them, and how readily they recall them; (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith & Braman 2011). The motivation to form identity-congruent beliefs drives biased search and biased assimilation of information (Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil & Slovic 2010)..—not only on existing contested issues but on novel ones (Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil & Slovic 2009).
2. Cultural cognition as expressive rationality. Recent scholarship on cultural cognition, however, seems to complicate if not in fact contradict this account!
By treating politically motivated reasoning—of which “cultural cognition” is one operationalization (Kahan in pressb)—as in effect a “moderator” of other more familiar cognitive biases, the “bounded rationality” conception of it implies that cultural cognition is a consequence of over-reliance on heuristic information processing (e.g., Taber & Lodge 2013; Sunstein 2006). If this understanding is correct, then we should expect cultural cognition to be mitigated by proficiency in the sorts of reasoning dispositions essential to conscious, effortful “System 2” information processing.
But in fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that System 2 reasoning dispositions magnify rather than reduce cultural cognition! Experiments show that individuals high in cognitive reflection and numeracy use their distinctive proficiencies to discern what the significance of crediting complex information is for positions associated with their cultural or political identities (Kahan 2013; Kahan, Peters, Dawson & Slovic 2013).
As a result, they more consistently credit information that is in fact identity-affirming and discount information that is identity-threatening. If this is how individuals reason outside of lab conditions, then we should expect to see that individuals highest in the capacities and dispositions necessary to make sense of quantitative information should be the most politically polarized on facts that have become invested with identity-defining significance. And we do see that—on climate change, nuclear power, gun control, and other issues (Kahan 2015; Kahan, Peters, et al., 2012).
This work supports an alternative “expressive” conception of cultural cognition. On this account, cultural cognition is not a consequence of “bounded rationality.” It is a form of engaging information rationally suited for forming affective dispositions that reliably express their group allegiances (cf. Lessig 1995; Akerlof & Kranton 2000).
“Expressing group allegiances” is not just one thing ordinary people do with information on societally contested risks. It is pretty much the only thing they do. The personal “beliefs” ordinary people form on issues like climate change or gun control or nuclear power etc. don’t otherwise have any impact on them. Ordinary individuals just don’t matter enough, as individuals, for anything they do based on their view of the facts on these issues to affect the level of risk they are exposed to or the policies that get adopted to abate them (Kahan 2013, in press). In contrast, it is in fact critical to ordinary people’s well-being—psychic, emotional, and material—to evince attitudes that convey their commitment to their identity-defining groups in the myriad everyday settings in which they can be confident those around them will be assessing their character in this way (Kahan in pressb).
* * * * *
At one point I thought the first conception of cultural cognition was right. Indeed, it didn’t even occur to me, early on, that the second conception existed!
But now I believe the second view is almost certainly right. And that no account that fails to recognize that cultural cognition is integral to individual rationality can possibly make sense of it or manage successfully the influences that create the conflict between expressive rationality and collective rationality that give rise to cultural polarization over policy-relevant facts.
If that’s right, then in fact the continued focus on the interaction of cultural cognition and critical reasoning proficiencies will remain essential.
So is it right? Maybe not; but the only way to figure that out also is to keep probing this interaction.
Akerlof, G. A., & Kranton, R. E. (2000). Economics and Identity. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3), 715-753.
Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732-735.
Kahan, D., Braman, D., Cohen, G., Gastil, J. & Slovic, P. Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition. Law Human Behav 34, 501-516 (2010).
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 (ed. R. Hillerbrand, P. Sandin, S. Roeser & M. Peterson) 725-760 (Springer London, Limited, 2012).
Lessig, L. (1995). The Regulation of Social Meaning. U. Chi. L. Rev., 62, 943-1045.
Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2013). The rationalizing voter. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Peters, E.M., Burraston, B. & Mertz, C.K. An Emotion-Based Model of Risk Perception and Stigma Susceptibility: Cognitive Appraisals of Emotion, Affective Reactivity, Worldviews, and Risk Perceptions in the Generation of Technological Stigma. Risk Analysis 24, 1349-1367 (2004).
Slovic, P. & Peters, E. The importance of worldviews in risk perception Risk Decision and Policy 3, 165-170 (1998).
Sunstein, C. R. (2006). Misfearing: A reply. Harvard Law Review, 119(4), 1110-1125.
Weber, E. Experience-Based and Description-Based Perceptions of Long-Term Risk: Why Global Warming does not Scare us (Yet). Climatic Change 77, 103-120 (2006).