Checking in on the “white male effect” for risk perception

I read a couple of interesting studies of risk and the “white male effect” recently, one by McCright and Dunlap published (advance on-line) in the Journal of Risk Research and another in working paper form by Julie Nelson, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

The “white male effect” (WME) refers to the observed tendency of white males to be less concerned with all manner of risk than are women and minorities.  The phenomenon was first observed (and the term coined) in a study by Flynn, Slovic & Mertz in 1994 and has been poked and prodded by risk-perception researchers ever since.

WME was the focus of one early Cultural Cognition Project study. Extending study findings by Finucane, Slovic, Mertz, Flynn & Satterfield, a CCP research team (which included WME veterans Slovic & Mertz!) found that WME could be largely attributed to the interaction of cultural worldviews with race and gender. The WME was not so much a “white male effect” as a “white hierarchical and individualistic male effect” reflecting the extreme risk skepticism of men with those worldviews.

The design and hypotheses of the CCP study reflected the surmise that WME was in fact a product of “identity protective cognition.” Identity-protective cognition is a species of motivated reasoning that reflects the tendency of people to form perceptions of risk and other facts that protect the status of, and their standing in, self-defining groups.  White hierarchical individualistic males were motivated to resist claims of environmental and certain other risks, we conjectured, because the wide-spread acceptance of those claims would justify restrictions on markets, commerce, and industry—activities important (emotionally and psychically, as well as materially) to the status of white men with those outlooks.

The McCright and Dunlap article corroborates and strengthens this basic account of WME. Using political ideology rather than cultural worldviews to measure the latent motivating disposition, M&D find that the interaction of conservatism with race and gender explains a wide range of environmental risks (thus enlarging on an earlier study of their own, too, in which they focused on climate change).

M&D suggest that WME can be seen as being generated jointly by identity-protective cognition and “system justification,” a psychological dynamic that is said to generate attitudes and beliefs supportive of the political “status quo.” They defend this claim convincingly with the evidence that they collected. But I myself would be interested to see a study that tried to pit these two mechanisms against each other, since I think they are in fact not one and the same and could well be seen as rival accounts of many phenomena featuring public controversy over risks and related policy-consequential facts.

Nelson’s paper presents a comprehensive literature review and re-analysis of various studies—not just from the field of risk perception but from economics and decision theory, too—purporting to find greater “risk aversion” among women than men.

Actually, she pretty much demolishes this claim. The idea that gender has some generic effect on risk perception, she shows, is inconsistent with the disparity in the size of the effects reported across various settings. Even more important, it doesn’t persist in the fact of experimental manipulations that are more in keeping with explanations based on a variety of context-specific or culturally grounded dynamics (such as stereotype threat).

Nelson hints that the ubiquity of the “female risk aversion” claim in economics might well reflect the influence of a culturally grounded expectation or prototype on the part of researchers and reviewers—an argument that she in fact explicitly (ruthlessly!) develops in a companion essay to her study.

I got so excited by the papers that I felt like I had to so some data analysis of my own using responses from a nationally representative sample of 800 subjects who participated in a CCP study in late September.

The top figure, which reflects a regression model that includes only gender and race, shows the classic WME for climate change (the outcome variable is the “industrial strength risk perception” measure, which I’ve normalized via z-score).

The bottom figure graphs the outcome once the worldview measures and appropriate race/gender/cultural interaction terms are added.  It reveals that WME is in truth a “white hierarchical individualistic male effect”: once the intense risk skepticism associated with being a white, hierarchical individualistic male is taken into account, there’s no meaningful gender or race variance in climate change risk perceptions to speak of.

For fun (and because the risk perception battery in the study also had this item in it), I also ran a model  for “the risk that high tax rates for businesses poses to human health, safety, or prosperity” in American society. Relative to the ones displayed in climate-change risk perceptions, the results are inverted:

In other words, white males are more worried about this particular risk, although again the gender-race difference is an artifact of the intensity of the perceptions of white hierarchical individualistic males.

That these characteristics predict more risk concern here is consistent with the identity-protective cognition thesis: because it burdens an activity connected to status-enhancing roles for individuals with this cultural identity, white hierarchical individualistic males can be expected to form the perception that high tax rates on business will harm society generally.

This finding also bears out Nelson’s most interesting point, in my view, since it confirms that men are more risk tolerant than women” only if some unexamined premise about what counts as a “risk” excludes from assessment the sorts of things that scare the pants off of white men (or at least hierarchical, individualistic ones).

Cool papers, cool topic!


Finucane, M., Slovic, P., Mertz, C.K., Flynn, J. & Satterfield, T.A. Gender, Race, and Perceived Risk: The “White Male” Effect. Health, Risk, & Soc’y 3, 159-172 (2000).

Flynn, J., Slovic, P. & Mertz, C.K. Gender, Race, and Perception of Environmental Health Risk. Risk Analysis 14, 1101-1108 (1994).

Kahan, D.M., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P. & Mertz, C.K. Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White-Male Effect in Risk Perception. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 4, 465-505 (2007).

McCright, A.M. & Dunlap, R.E. Bringing ideology in: the conservative white male effect on worry about environmental problems in the USA. J Risk Res, doi:   (2012).

McCright, A.M. & Dunlap, R.E. Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change 21, 1163-1172 (2011).

Nelson, Julie.  Are Women Really More Risk-Averse than Men?, INET Researcn Note (Sept., 2012)

Nelson, Julie.  Is Dismissing the Precautionary Principle the Manly Thing to Do? Gender and the Economics of Climate Change, INET Research Note (Sept. 2012)

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