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Cultural Cognition and Public Policy: The Case of Outpatient Commitment Laws

Oupatient commitment laws (OCLs) are highly controversial provisions that permit courts to order persons who are mentally ill to comply with specified outpatient-treatment regimens or face involuntary confinement. A CCP study, published in Law and Human Behavior , found that political conflict over OCLs reflects the influence of cultural values on citizens' perceptions of the impact of these laws on public health and safety.  

What explains controversy over outpatient commitment laws (OCLs), which authorize courts to order persons with mental illness to accept outpatient treatment? We hypothesized that attitudes toward OCLs reflect “cultural cognition" (DiMaggio 1997), which motivates individuals to conform their beliefs about policy-relevant facts to their cultural values. In a study involving a diverse sample of Americans (N = 1,496), we found that individuals who are hierarchical and communitarian tend to support OCLs, while those who are egalitarian and individualistic tend to oppose them. These relationships, moreover, fit the cultural cognition hypothesis: that is, rather than directly influencing OCL support, cultural values, mediated by affect, shaped individuals' perceptions of how effectively OCLs promote public health and safety. We discuss the implications for informed public deliberation over OCLs. 

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