Some Q & A on the “cultural cognition scales”

Below is part of an email exchange that I thought might of interest to others:

Q.  How do you conceptualize the attitudes being assessed by the cultural cogniton scales?  Do you think of them as inherent personality dispositions that color an individual’s opinions across all sorts of issues?  Do people hold different orientations depending on the issue?  Also, are they changeable over time, and if so, what sources of influence do you think are most relevant?

My answers:

a.  The items that the scales comprise are indicators of some latent disposition that generates individual differences in perceptions of risk and related facts. The theory I see “cultural cognition” as testing is that individuals form perceptions of risk & related facts in a  manner that protects the status of and their standing in groups important to their well-being, materially & psychologically. This makes cultural cognition a species of “identity protective” cognition, a phenomenon one can observe w/ respect to all manner of group identities.  If “identity protective cognition” is what creates variance in — and conflict over– risks and related facts that admit of scientific examination, then one would like to have some way to specify what the operative group identities are & have some observable measure of them (since the identities themselves *can’t* be observed, are “latent” in that sense).  The “group-grid” framework as we conceive of it specifies the nature of the groups & thus supplies the constructs that we try to measure w/ the scales.  Presumably, too, there are lots of other potential indicators, including demographic characteristics, behaviors, other attitudes, etc.  The scales we use are tractable & robust & so we are satisfied w/ them.

b.  The identities they measure are *dispositional*– not “situational”; so, they reside in people & are constant across contexts. Relatively stable too across time, although there’s no reason why individuals can’t shift & change w/ respect to them — it’s aggregate patterns of perceptions among individuals that we are trying to measure, so the history of particular individuals isn’t so important so long as it’s not the case that all individuals are always in flux (in which case we’d not be explaining the phenomenon that we *see* in the world, which involves identifiable groups of people, not a kaleidoscopic blur of conflict among groups whose members are constantly changing, much less changing as those individuals move from place to place!).

c.  The dispositions necessarily exist independently of the risk or fact dispositions they are explaining–else they would not be explanations of them at all but rather part of what we are trying to explain.  Compare a hypothetical approach that simply categorized people as “the low perception of risk group,” “the medium perception of risk group,” and the “high perception of risk group”; that would not be useful, at least for what we want to do–viz., explain why people who have different group identities disagree about risk!  Accordingly, there has to be some historically exogenous event that creates the connection (in our theory, something that invests particular risk or fact perceptions with meanings that link them to group identities).  This means, too, that *not all* risk perceptions (or related beliefs) will vary in manners that correspond to these identities, since not all putative risk sources will have become invested with meanings that make positions on them markers of identity in this sense.

d.   Also  the groups are in fact models! They are representations of things that are no doubt much more complicated & varied in reality. They help to make unobservable, complex things tractable so that it becomes possible to explain, predict, and form prescriptions (or at least possible to go about the task of trying to do so through the use of valid empirical means of investigation).  Their utility will be specific, moreover, to the task of explaining, predicting & forming prescriptions to some specified set of risk perceptions.  They might not have as much utility as some other “model” of what the motivating dispositions are if one is investigating something else, or something more particular.  E.g., perceptions of synthetic biology risks, or dispositions relevant to how people might understand issues relating to climate adaptation in Fla, or “who watches science documentaries & why.”

e.   Beyond that, I find the task of characterizing the thing we are measuring –are they “traits” a “values” “dispositions”? etc — as scholastic & aimless, although I know this question matters to some scholars in some perfectly interesting conversation.  If someone explains to me why it matters for the conversation I am in to be able to characterize the dispositions in one of these ways rather than another, I will be motivated to figure out the answer (indeed, without a “why” I don’t know “what” I am supposed to be figuring out).

Some relevant things:

Kahan, D. M. (2012). Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk. In R. Hillerbrand, P. Sandin, S. Roeser & M. Peterson (Eds.), Handbook of Risk Theory: Epistemology, Decision Theory, Ethics and Social Implications of Risk (pp. 725-760): Springer London, Limited.

Kahan, D. M. (2011). The Supreme Court 2010 Term—Foreword: Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law Harv. L. Rev., 126, 1.-77, pp. 19-24.

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