The fractal nature of the "knowledge deficit" hypothesis: Biases & heuristics, system 1 & 2, and cultural cognition
I often get asked—in correspondence, in Q&A after talks, in chance encounters with strangers while using one or another mode of public transportation—what the connection is between “cultural cognition” and “all that heuristics and biases stuff” or some equivalent characterization of the work, most prominently associated with Nobelist Daniel Kahneman, on the contribution that automatic, largely unconscious mechanisms of cognition make to risk perception.
This excerpt, from 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 Behavior 34, 501-516, (2010), furnishes half the answer.
The basic idea is that cultural cognition is not an alternative to the “heuristics and biases” position but a supplement that helps explain how one and the same mechanism—“the availability effect,” “biased assimilation,” “probability neglect” etc.—can generate systematically opposing risk perceptions in identifiable groups of people.
But as I said, this is only half the answer. At the time that CCP researchers did this study, they were carrying out a research project to examine how cultural cognition interacts with heuristic or “System 1” information processing, which as I indicated features automatic, unconscious mechanisms of cognition.
In a project that we started thereafter, we’ve been examining the connection between cultural cognition and “System 2” reasoning, which involves conscious, analytic forms of information processing. In particular, we’ve been empirically testing the popular conjecture that disputes over climate change and other politically contested risks reflects the public’s over-reliance on heuristic reasoning.
Tragically, people use their quantitative and critical-reasoning dispositions to fit empirical data and other technically complex forms of evidence to the position that affirm their identities. As a result, those who are most disposed to use System 2 reasoning are the most polarized.
If you are wandering the internet preaching that the climate change controversy is a consequence of public’s over-reliance on “emotion” or “fast, intuitive heuristics” etc etc you are ignoring evidence. It was a very reasonable hypothesis, but you need to update your understanding of what’s going on as new evidence emerges—just as climate scientists do!
Sometimes I think this account—that the climate change controversy is a consequence of “public irrationality”—is a kind of pernicious story-telling virus that is impervious to treatment with evidence.
Makes me realize, too, the irony that I am implicitly affirming my adherence to the “knowledge deficit” hypothesis by continually trying to overcome a version of it by simply bombarding propagators of the "System 1 vs. system 2" (or "bounded rationality," "experiential reasoning," "public irrationality" etc.) explanation of conflict over climate change with more and more and more and more empirical evidence that their account is way too simple.
Life is weird. And interesting.
Theoretical Background: Heuristics, Culture, and Risk
The study of risk perception addresses a puzzle. How do people—particularly ordinary citizens who lack not only experience with myriad hazards but also the time and expertise necessary to make sense of complex technical data—form positions on the dangers they face and what they should do about them?
Social psychology has made well-known progress toward answering this question. People (not just lay persons, but quite often experts too) rely on heuristic reasoning to deal with risk and uncertainty generally. They thus employ a range of “mental shortcuts”: when gauging the danger of a putatively hazardous activity (the possession, say, of a handgun, or the use of nuclear power generation), they consult a mental inventory of recalled instances of misfortunes involving it, give special weight to perceived authorities, and steer clear of options that could improve their situation but that also involve the potential to make them worse off than they are at present (“better safe, than sorry”) (Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Slovic, 2000; Margolis, 1996). They also employ faculties and styles of reasoning—most conspicuously affective ones informed by feelings such as hope and dread, admiration and disgust—that make it possible for them to respond rapidly to perceived exigency (Slovic, Finucane, Peters & MacGregor, 2004).
To be sure, heuristic reasoning of this sort can lead to mistakes, particularly when they crowd out more considered, systematic forms of reasoning (Sunstein, 2005). But they are adaptive in the main (Slovic et al, 2004).
As much as this account has enlarged our knowledge, it remains incomplete. In particular, a theory that focuses only on heuristic reasoning fails to supply a cogent account of the nature of political conflict over risk (Kahan, Slovic, Braman & Gastil, 2006). Citizens disagree, intensely, over a wide range of personal and societal hazards. If the imprecision of heuristic reasoning accounted for such variance, we might expect such disagreements to be randomly distributed across the population or correlated with personal characteristics (education, income, community type, exposure to news of particular hazards, and the like) that either plausibly related to one or another heuristic or that made the need for heuristic reasoning less necessary altogether. By and large, however, this is not the case. Instead, a large portion of the variance in risk perception coheres with membership in groups integral to personal identity, such as race, gender, political party membership, and religious affiliation (e.g. Slovic, 2000, p. 390; Kahan & Braman, 2006). Whether the planet is overheating; whether nuclear wastes can be safely disposed of; whether genetically modified foods are bad for human health—these are cultural issues in American society every bit as much as whether women should be allowed to have abortions and men should be allowed to marry other men (Kahan, 2007). Indeed, as unmistakably cultural in nature as these latter disputes are, public debate over them often features competing claims about societal risks and benefits, and not merely competing values (e.g. Siegel, 2007; Pollock, 2005).
This is the part of the risk-perception puzzle that the cultural theory of risk is distinctively concerned with (Douglass & Wildavsky, 1982). According to that theory, individuals conform their perceptions of risk to their cultural evaluations of putatively dangerous activities and the policies for regulating them. Thus, persons who subscribe to an “individualist” worldview react dismissively to claims of environmental and technological risks, societal recognition of which would threaten markets and other forms of private ordering. Persons attracted to “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews, in contrast, readily credit claims of environmental risk: they find it congenial to believe that commerce and industry, activities they associate inequity and selfishness, cause societal harm. Precisely because the assertion that such activities cause harm impugns the authority of social elites, individuals of a “hierarchical worldview” are (in this case, like individualists) risk skeptical (Rayner, 1992).
Researchers have furnished a considerable body of empirical support for these patterns of risk perception (Dake, 1991; Jenkins-Smith, 2001; Ellis & Thompson, 1997; Peters & Slovic, 1996; Peters, Burriston & Mertz, 2004; Kahan, Braman, Gastil, Slovic & Mertz, 2007). Such studies have found that cultural worldviews explain variance more powerfully than myriad other characteristics, including socio-economic status, education, and political ideology, and can interact with and reinforce the effect of related sources of identity such as race and gender.
Although one could see a rivalry between culture theory and the heuristic model (Marris, Langford, O’Riordan 1998; Douglas, 1997), it is unnecessary to view them as mutually exclusive. Indeed, one conception of the cultural theory—which we will call the cultural cognition thesis ((Kahan, Braman, Monahan, Callahan & Peters, in press; Kahan, Slovic, Braman & Gastil, 2006)—seeks to integrate them. Culture theorists have had relatively little to say about exactly how culture shapes perceptions of risk.[i] Cultural cognition posits that the connection is supplied by conventional heuristic processes, or at least some subset of them (DiMaggio, 1997). On this account, heuristic mechanisms interact with cultural values: People notice, assign significance to, and recall the instances of misfortune that fit their values; they trust the experts whose cultural outlooks match their own; they define the contingencies that make them worse off, or count as losses, with reference to culturally valued states of affairs; they react affectively toward risk on the basis of emotions that are themselves conditioned by cultural appraisals—and so forth. By supplying this account of the mechanisms through which culture shapes risk perceptions, cultural cognition not only helps to fill a lacuna in the cultural theory of risk. It also helps to complete the heuristic model by showing how one and the same heuristic process (whether availability, credibility, loss aversion, or affect) can generate different perceptions of risk in people with opposing outlooks.
The proposition that moral evaluations of conduct shape the perceived consequences of such conduct is not unique to the cultural cognition thesis. Experimental study, for example, shows that negative affective responses mediate between moral condemnation of “taboo” behaviors and perceptions that those behaviors are harmful (Gutierrez & Giner-Sorolla, 2007). The same conclusion is also supported by a number of correlational studies (Horvath & Giner-Sorolla, 2007; Haidt & Hersh, 2001). The point of contact that the cultural cognition thesis, if demonstrated, would establish between cultural theory and these other works in morally motivated cognition would also lend strength to the psychological foundation of the former’s account of the origins of risk perceptions.
[i] For functionalist accounts, in which individuals are seen as forming risk perceptions congenial to their ways of life precisely because holding those beliefs about risk cohere with and promote their ways of life, see Douglas (1986) and Thompson, Ellis & Wildavsky (1990).