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The expressive rationality of inaccurate perceptions

This comment, forthcoming in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, uses the dynamic of identity-protective cognition to pose a friendly challenge to Jussim (2012). The friendly part consists of an examination of how this form of information processing, like many of the ones Jussim describes, has been mischaracterized in the decision science literature as a “cognitive bias”: in fact, identity-protective cognition is a mode of engaging information rationally suited to the ends of the agents who display it. The challenging part is the manifest inaccuracy of the perceptions that identity-protective cognition generates. At least some of the missteps induced by the “bounded rationality” paradigm in decision science reflect its mistaken assumption that the only thing people use their reasoning for is to form accurate beliefs. Jussim’s critique of the bounded-rationality paradigm, the comment suggests, appears to rest on the same mistaken equation of rational information processing with perceptual accuracy.



“Ideology” or “Situation Sense”? An Experimental Investigation of Motivated Reasoning and Professional Judgment

This paper (in press, Univ. Pa. L. Rev.) reports the results of a study on whether political predispositions influence judicial decisionmaking. The study was designed to overcome the two principal limitations on existing empirical studies that purport to find such an influence: the use of nonexperimental methods to assess the decisions of actual judges; and the failure to use actual judges in ideologically-biased-reasoning experiments. The study involved a sample of sitting judges (n = 253), who, like members of a general public sample (n = 800), were culturally polarized on climate change, marijuana legalization and other contested issues. When the study subjects were assigned to analyze statutory interpretation problems, however, only the responses of the general-public subjects and not those of the judges varied in patterns that reflected the subjects’ cultural values. The responses of a sample of lawyers (= 217) were also uninfluenced by their cultural values; the responses of a sample of law students (n = 284), in contrast, displayed a level of cultural bias only modestly less pronounced than that observed in the general-public sample. Among the competing hypotheses tested in the study, the results most supported the position that professional judgment imparted by legal training and experience confers resistance to identity-protective cognition—a dynamic associated with politically biased information processing generally—but only for decisions that involve legal reasoning. The scholarly and practical implications of the findings are discussed.


What is the 'science of science communication'?

This essay (forthcoming in the Journal of Science Communication) seeks to explain what the “science of science communication” is by doing it. Surveying studies of cultural cognition and related dynamics, it demonstrates how the form of disciplined observation, measurement, and inference distinctive of scientific inquiry can be used to test rival hypotheses on the nature of persistent public conflict over societal risks; indeed, it argues that satisfactory insight into this phenomenon can be achieved only by these means, as opposed to the ad hoc story-telling dominant in popular and even some forms of scholarly discourse. Synthesizing the evidence, the essay proposes that conflict over what is known by science arises from the very conditions of individual freedom and cultural pluralism that make liberal democratic societies distinctively congenial to science. This tension, however, is not an “inherent contradiction”; it is a problem to be solved—by the science of science communication understood as a “new political science” for perfecting enlightened self-government.


Laws of cognition and the cognition of law

This paper (published in the journal Cognition) presents a compact synthesis of the study of cognition in legal decisionmaking. Featured dynamics include the Story-telling Model (Pennington & Hastie, 1986), lay prototypes (Smith, 1993), motivated cognition (Sood, 2012), and coherence-based reasoning (Simon, Pham & Holyoak, 2001). Unlike biases and heuristics understood to bound or constrain rationality, these dynamics, it is maintained, identify influences that can radically alter the significance that decisionmakers give to evidence, and hence the decisions they make, within a Bayesian framework of information processing.



“Ordinary Science Intelligence”: A Science Comprehension Measure for Use in the Study of Science Communication, with Notes on "Belief in" Evolution and Climate Change

This paper describes the “Ordinary Science Intelligence” scale (OSI_2.0). Designed for use in the empirical study public risk perceptions and science communication, OSI_2.0 comprises items intended to measure a latent (unobserved) capacity to recognize and make use of valid scientific evidence in everyday decisionmaking. The derivation of the items, the relationship of them to the knowledge and skills OSI requires, and the psychometric properties of the scale are examined. Evidence of the external validity of OSI_2.0 is also presented. Finally, the utility of OSI_2.0 is briefly illustrated by using it to assess the relationship of standard survey items on evolution and global warming to science comprehension.


Climate Science Communication and the Measurement Problem

This paper (in press, Advances in Pol. Psych.) examines the science-of-science-communication measurement problem. In its simplest form, the problem reflects the use of externally invalid measures of the dynamics that generate cultural conflict over risk and other policy-relevant facts. But at a more fundamental level, the science-of-science-communication measurement problem inheres in the phenomena being measured themselves. The “beliefs” individuals form about a societal risk such as climate change are not of a piece; rather they reflect the distinct clusters of inferences that individuals draw as they engage information for two distinct ends: to gain access to the collective knowledge furnished by science, and to enjoy the sense of identity enabled by membership in a community defined by particular cultural commitments. The paper shows how appropriately designed “science comprehension” tests — one general, and one specific to climate change — can be used to measure individuals’ reasoning proficiency as collective-knowledge acquirers independently of their reasoning proficiency as cultural-identity protectors. Doing so reveals that there is in fact little disagreement among culturally diverse citizens on what science knows about climate change. The source of the climate-change controversy and like disputes is the contamination of education and politics with forms of cultural status competition that make it impossible for diverse citizens to express their reason as both collective-knowledge acquirers and cultural-identity protectors at the same time.


Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Empirical Assessment

This Report presents empirical evidence relevant to assessing the claim—reported widely in the media and other sources—that the public is growing increasingly anxious about the safety of childhood vaccinations. Based on survey and experimental methods (N = 2,316), the Report presents two principal findings: first, that vaccine risks are neither a matter of concern for the vast majority of the public nor an issue of contention among recognizable demographic, political, or cultural subgroups; and second, that ad hoc forms of risk communication that assert there is mounting resistance to childhood immunizations themselves pose a risk of creating misimpressions and arousing sensibilities that could culturally polarize the public and diminish motivation to cooperate with universal vaccination programs. Based on these findings the Report recommends that government agencies, public health professionals, and other constituents of the public health establishment (1) promote the use of valid and appropriately focused empirical methods for investigating vaccine-risk perceptions and formulating responsive risk communication strategies; (2) discourage ad hoc risk communication based on impressionistic or psychometrically invalid alternatives to these methods; (3) publicize the persistently high rates of childhood vaccination and high levels of public support for universal immunization in the U.S.; and (4) correct ad hoc communicators who misrepresent U.S. vaccination coverage and its relationship to the incidence of childhood diseases.

This Report is part of CCP's "Protecting the Vaccine Science Communication Project."


A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines

What accounts for public conflict over the risks of childhood vaccines? The science of science communication, which  examines public controversies over risk and policy-relevant facts generally, can be used to answer this troubling question. Indeed, this body of research can be used to forecast conditions that provoke such conflict—and thus in theory to equip public policymakers to avoid this pernicious impediment to reasoned public engagement with scientific evidence. The answer to “why conflict over vaccines?,” this work suggests, is “a variety of things.” But a single factor that connects them is democratic societies’ failure to use available scientific knowledge to manage the science communication environment in a manner protective of their citizens’ interests in being able to reliably recognize the contributions decision-relevant science can make to their well-being.

Published in Science.


Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government

Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT), which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy—a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information—did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized—and even less accurate—when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.


Making Climate-Science Communication Evidence-based—All the Way Down

Scientists and science communicators have appropriately turned to the science of science communication for guidance in overcoming public conflict over climate change. The value of the knowledge that this science can impart, however, depends on its being used scientifically. It is a mistake to believe (or to represent) that either social scientists or science communicators can intuit effective communication strategies by simply consulting compendiums of psychological mechanisms. Social scientists have used empirical methods to identify which of the myriad mechanisms that could plausibly be responsible for public conflict over climate change actually are. Science communicators should now use valid empirical methods to identify which plausible real-world strategies for counteracting those mechanisms actually work. Collaboration between social scientists and communicators on evidence-based field experiments is the best means of using and expanding our knowledge of how to communicate climate science.


Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study

Decision scientists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like issues that turn on empirical evidence. This paper, published in Judgment and Decisionmaking, describes a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated reasoning; and the cognitive-style correlates of political conservativism. The study generated both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with either unreflective thinking or motivated reasoning. Conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on the Cognitive Reflection Test (Frederick, 2005), an objective measure of information-processing dispositions associated with cognitive biases. In addition, the study found that ideologically motivated reasoning is not a consequence of over-reliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning generally. On the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated an alternative hypothesis, which identifies ideologically motivated cognition as a form of information processing that promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the practical significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of political identity.


Cognitive Bias and the Constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science

This essay uses insights from the study of risk perception to remedy a deficit in liberal constitutional theory—and vice versa. The deficit common to both is inattention to cognitive illiberalism—the threat that unconscious biases pose to enforcement of basic principles of liberal neutrality. Liberal constitutional theory can learn to anticipate and control cognitive illiberalism from the study of biases such as the cultural cognition of risk. In exchange, the study of risk perception can learn from constitutional theory that the detrimental impact of such biases is not limited to distorted weighing of costs and benefits; by infusing such determinations with contentious social meanings, cultural cognition forces citizens of diverse outlooks to experience all manner of risk regulation as struggles to impose a sectarian orthodoxy. Cognitive illiberalism is a foreseeable if paradoxical consequence of the same social conditions that make a liberal society conducive to the growth of scientific knowledge on risk mitigation. The use of scientific knowledge to mitigate the threat that cognitive illiberalism poses to those very conditions is integral to securing the constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.


Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change

This brief "World View" essay published in Nature takes a critical stance against the pop-psychology claim (one increasingly prevalent in the media) that public controversy over climate change reflects limitations in human rationality. On the contrary, it argues, people are reacting too rationally to climate change information: because positions on climate change have become a marker of one's group allegiances, it is in the interests of individuals to attend to information in a manner that promotes beliefs that help them effectively signal their commitment to the cultural group on whom their status and well-being most depends. To fix this problem requires breaking the link between facts on climate chnage and antagonistic cultural meanings. In sum, "It's the polluted science communication envrionment, stupid!," and not stupid people, that accounts for the difficult we are in.


The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project and published in the Journal Nature Climate Change found no support for this position. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

 Related paper: The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Science Literacy and Climate Change


Geoengineering and the Science Communication Environment: A Cross-Cultural Experiment 

We conducted a two-nation study (United States, n = 1500; England, n = 1500) to test a novel theory of science communication. The cultural cognition thesis posits that individuals make extensive reliance on cultural meanings in forming perceptions of risk. The logic of the cultural cognition thesis suggests the potential value of a distinctive two-channel science communication strategy that combines information content (“Channel 1”) with cultural meanings (“Channel 2”) selected to promote open-minded assessment of information across diverse communities. In the study, scientific information content on climate change was held constant while the cultural meaning of that information was experimentally manipulated. Consistent with the study hypotheses, we found that making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions helps to offset cultural polarization over the validity of climate-change science. We also tested the hypothesis, derived from competing models of science communication, that exposure to information on geoengineering would provoke discounting of climate-change risks generally. Contrary to this hypothesis, we found that subjects exposed to information about geoengineering were slightly more concerned about climate change risks than those assigned to a control condition.


Judicial Backlash or Just Backlash? Evidence from a National Experiment

The question about whether there is a distinctive public reaction when the Supreme Court decides constitutional issues — the question of judicial backlash — permeates our discussions of constitutional law, yet we have little to no empirical research about how people think about this issue. To answer this question, we conducted an experiment before the midterm congressional elections in the fall of 2010. We hypothesized that people respond to an institution based on whether the institution is seen as supporting or threatening their cultural worldview. Half of study subjects were assigned to a condition in which a constitutional right to gay marriage was protected and the other half were assigned to a condition in which a constitutional right to carry a concealed weapon was protected (with half of each of these subject populations being told the Court decided the issue and half being told that Congress did). Our results support the hypothesis that the cultural valence of the decision by the Court or Congress triggered the institutional choice of subjects. The Court does polarize underlying opinions on the constitutional issue and voting preferences more than Congress does. Our results suggest complications for efforts to decide constitutional issues in a manner appealing to all Americans. Our results also suggest that the Court and Congress might be able aggressively to decide constitutional issues because the public has no fixed sense of their respective institutional roles. We conclude by discussing what our results mean for interested communities outside of government, including social movements and constitutional theorists.

The Supreme Court 2010 Term—Foreword: Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law 

Why is the “neutrality” of Supreme Court decisionmaking a matter of persistent political disagreement? What should be done to mitigate such conflict? Once the predominant focus of constitutional law scholarship, efforts to answer these questions are now widely viewed as evincing misunderstandings of what can be coherently demanded of theory and realistically expected of judges. This paper, published in the Harvard Law Review's annual Supreme Court issue, attributes the Court’s “neutrality crisis” to a very different form of misunderstanding. The study of motivated reasoning (in particular cultural cognition) shows that individuals are predisposed to fit their perceptions of policy-relevant facts to their group commitments. In the course of public deliberations, these facts become suffused with antagonistic meanings that transform utilitarian policymaking into occasions for symbolic status competition. These same dynamics, the paper argues, make constitutional decisionmaking the focus of status competition among groups whose members are unconsciously motivated to fit perceptions of the Court’s decisions to their values. Theories of constitutional neutrality do not address the distinctive cognitive groundings of this form of illiberal conflict; indeed, they make it worse by promoting idioms of justification, in Court opinions and public discourse generally, that reinforce the predisposition of diverse groups to attribute culturally partisan aims to those who disagree with them. The divisive effects of motivated reasoning on policy deliberations can be offset by science communication techniques that avoid selectively threatening any group’s cultural worldview. Similarly, public confidence in the Supreme Court’s neutrality can be restored by the Court’s communication of meanings that uniformly affirm the values of culturally diverse citizens.


The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

Related paper: The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks


The Results of Deliberation

Social scientists have used mock juror studies to produce a vast body of literature showing how different variables influence juror decision-making. This paper presents a computer model that extrapolates findings about jurors to juries, showing how variables of interest affect the decisions not only of individuals but also of deliberative bodies. The computer model simulates jurors from a specified community, imputes initial votes to them conditional on a user-specified model, and uses Robert MacCoun’s new “social burden of proof” framework to predict the likelihood that the jury will come out for either side, given those initial votes. The paper then demonstrates the usefulness of the model by applying it to the Cultural Cognition Project’s study of the factors that influence the verdict in acquaintance rape cases. The value of the model for prosecutors, policy-makers, and legal scholars is discussed.


"They Saw a Protest": Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction

The Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence draws a sharp distinction between political persuasion, which the state cannot constitutionally prohibit, and physical intimidation, which it can. But is it psychologically realistic to expect decisionmakers to reliably make the distinction? A CCP experiment found that whether study subjects perceived a videotaped protest to be a peaceful rally or an incipient riot depended on the relationship between the subjects’ worldviews and what subjects believed the protest to be about (either the provision of abortion or the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the military).

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