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Monday
May112009

Cultural Cognition and Public Policy

How does cultural conflict influence public policymaking? Surprisingly, not by generating moral disputes over the ends to be pursued by law but rather by generating empirical disagreements over the consequences of economic, crime-control, national security, and other policies designed to promote our common interests.

People disagree about the empirical dimensions of various public policy issues. It's not surprising that people have different beliefs about the deterrent effect of the death penalty, the impact of handgun ownership on crime, the significance of global warming, the public health consequences of promiscuous sex, etc. The mystery concerns the origins of such disagreement. Were either the indeterminacy of scientific evidence or the uneven dissemination of convincing data responsible, we would expect divergent beliefs on such issues to be distributed almost randomly across the population, and beliefs about seemingly unrelated questions (whether, say, the death penalty deters and whether global warming is a serious threat) to be relatively independent of one another. But this is not the case: factual disagreement is highly polarized across distinct social groups - ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and ideological. Moreover, factual beliefs highly correlate across discrete and disparate issues. What explains these patterns? The answer, we will argue, is the phenomenon of cultural cognition. We discuss original empirical evidence showing that individuals form factual beliefs that reflect and reinforce competing cultural orientations - hierarchic and egalitarian, individualistic and communitarian. We also identify the social and psychological mechanisms through which these orientations shape factual beliefs. And we discuss the implications of this phenomenon for enlightened democratic decision-making.

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