Three pretty darn interesting things about identity-protective reasoning (lecture summary, slides)
Friday, April 1, 2016 at 1:17AM
Dan Kahan

Got back to New Haven CT Wed. for first time since Jan. to give a lecture to cognitive science program undergraduates.  Since the lecture was on the science communication undergraduates.

The lecture (slides here) was on the Science of Science Communication. I figured the best way to explain what it was was just to do it.  So I decided to present data on three cool things:

1. MS2R (aka, "motivated system 2 reasoning").

Contrary to what many decision science expositors assume, identity-protective cognition is not attributatle to overreliance on heuristic, "System 1" reasoning.  On the contary, studies using a variety of measures and using both observational and experimental methods support the conclusion that the effortful, conscious reasoning associated with "System 2" processing magnify the disposition to selectively credit and dismssis evidence in patterns that conform one's assessment of contested societal risks into alignment with those of other with whom shares important group ties.

Why? Because it's rational to process information this way: the stake ordinary indidivudals have in forming beliefs that convincingly evince their group commitments is bigger than the stake they have in forming "correct" understandings of facts on risks that nothing they personally do--as consumers, voters, tireless advocates in blog post comment sections etc--will materially affect.

If you want to fix that--and you should; when everyone processes information this way, citizens in a diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on valid scientific evidence essential to their common welfare--then you have to eliminate the antagonistic social meanings that turn positions on disputed issues of fact into badges of group membership and loyalty.

2. The science communication measurement problem

There are several

One is, What does belief in "human caused climate change" measure?

Look at this great latent-variable measure of ideology: just add belief in climate change, belief nuclear power causes global warming, belief global warming causes flooding to liberal-conserative ideology & party identification!The answer is, Not what you know but who you are.

A second is, How can we measure what people know about climate change independently of who they are?

The answer is, By unconfounding identity and knowledge via appropriately constructed "climate science literacy" measures, like OCSI_1.0 and _2.0.

The final one is, How can we unconfound identity and knowledge from what politics meaures when culturally diverse citizens address the issue of climate change?

The answer is ... you tell me, and I'll measure.

3. Identity-protective reasoning and professional judgment

Is the legal reasoning of judges affected by identity-protective cogniton?

Not according to an experimental study by the Cultural Cogniton Project, which found that judges who were as culturally divided as members of the public on the risks posed by climate change, the dangers of legalizing marijuana, etc., nevertheless converged on the answers to statutory intepretation problems that generated intense motivated-reasoning effects among members of the public.

Lawyers also seemed largely immune to identity-protective reasoning in the experiment, while law students seemed to be affected by an intermediate degree.

The result was consistent with the hypothesis that professional judgment--habits of mind that enable and motivate recogniton of considerations relevant to making expert determinations--largely displaces identity-protective cognition when specialists are making in-domain determinations.

Combined with other studies showing how readily members of the public will display identity-protective reasoninng when assessing culturally contested facts, the study suggests that judges are likely more "neutral" than citizens perceive.

But precisely because citizens lack the professional habits of mind that make the neutrality of such decisons apparent to them, the law will have a "neutrality communication problem" akin to the "science communication problem" that scientists have in communicating valid science to private citizens who lack the professional judgment to reccognize the same.


Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (
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