What are fearless white hierarchical individualist males afraid of? Lots of stuff!

I haven’t posted any data recently. And I haven’t explored/exploded the “white male effect” (WME) in risk perception in a while either.  So lets pack some new data around WME & blow her to smithereens!

Actually, the “white male effect” is one of the most important phenomena — one of the coolest findings ever — in the study of public risk perceptions.

WME refers to the tendency of white males to express less concern with (seemingly) all manner of risk than do minorities and women. The finding was first observed by Flynn, Slovic & Mertz (1994) and thereafter systematically charted by Finucane, Slovic, Mertz, Flynn, & Satterfield (2000).

Lots of scholars have looked at it since, trying to figure out what explains it.  Does it reflect some sort of “hard wired” or “genetic” disposition on the part of women to be more concerned about the welfare of others (obvious question: if so, why are minority males more concerned?) Are men evolutionarily programmed to be more “risk seeking” (same obvious question.) Are white males less concerned because they are politically less vulnerable themselves than minorities and women? Or maybe white males are just “getting it right” — because they are more educated, less vulnerable to cognitive biases?

None of the above is probably the best answer.

What makes those explanations weak is that there really isn’t a “white male effect.”  Rather there’s a white male hierarch individualist effect.

In a study in which I collaborated with Slovic, Braman, Gastil & Mertz (2007), we used the cultural cognition worldview scales as a magnifier to inspect more closely cultural influences observed in Finucane et al. (2000).

What we found, in effect, was that white hierarchical and individualistic males are so extremely skeptical of risks involving, say, the environment or (another thing we looked at) guns that they create the appearance of a  sample-wide “white male” effect.  That effect “disappears” once the extreme skepticism of these individuals (less than 1/6 of the population) is taken into account.  There isn’t any WME among individuals who are egalitarian and communitarian, hierarchical communitarian or (in the case of environmental risks) egalitarian and individualistic in their outlooks.

This finding fit the hypothesis that “identity protective cognition” was driving WME.  Identity protective cognition is a form of motivated reasoning.  It describes the tendency of people to fit their perceptions of risk (and related facts) to ones that reflect and reinforce their connection to important affinity groups, membership in which confers psychic, emotional, and material benefits.  The study of cultural cognition reflects the premise that the latent group affinities measured with the “cultural worldview scales” we employ in our studies are the ones motivating risk perceptions in conflicts that polarize the U.S. public.

The sorts of things white hierarchical individualistic males are “unafraid of” are activities essential to the the cultural roles they tend to occupy.  Among people who subscribe to that outlook, men attain status by occupying positions of authority in commerce and industry.  Gun possession plays an important role for men in such groups too–enabling hierarchical roles like father, protector, and provider and symbolizing individualistic (male) virtues like honor and courage and self-reliance.

Because the assertion that such activities are “dangerous” would justify restriction of them by the state — and invite resentment and stigmatization of those individuals conspicuously identified with them — hierarchical and individualistic white males have an especially powerful psychological incentive to resist such claims.

That was our conjecture– one founded generally on Mary Douglas’s and Aaron Wildavksy’s “cultural theory of risk” — and the evidence was more consistent with that than with other explanations, we suggested.  Other researchers have corroborated this hypothesis with related but distinct methods (that’s a good thing; being able to verify a hypothesis with multiple methods furnishes assurance that the effect is really “there” and not an artifact of a particular way of trying to test for it).

But here’s another thing– or some more evidence, really.  If identity-protective cognition is at work, there’s no reason to believe that white hierarchical individualist males will be uniformly more “risk dismissive” than other people.

They’ll be that way only with regard to private activities the regulation which poses a threat to activities essential to their cultural status.  Where regulation itself poses such a threat, they should worry about the risks that such regulation poses.  Moreover, if we can find private activities that threaten their cultural identities, their stake in securing regulation of them should motivate them to be risk sensitive in regard to those activities!

And we see exactly that! I’ll show you in brand new data, collected in April and May of this year.

But first let’s use these fresh data (mmmm mmmm–don’t you love the aroma of freshly regressed data?!) to observe the “classic” white male effect.

This figure illustrates the “effect” with regard to climate change:

Using the “industrial strength risk perception measure,” we can see that white males are a lot less worried about climate change than “everyone else.”

But consider this figure:

This graphic, which uses a Monte Carlo simulation to illustrate the results of a multivariate regression analysis, shows that the “white male effect” is being driven by the extreme climate change skepticism of of white hierarchical individualistic males (who are, again, about 1/6 of the population).  There’s no meaningful gender or race variance in the rest of the subjects in this nationally representative sample.

Now consider a larger collection of risks:

Holy smokes!

These are the mean scores for white male hierarchical individualists and “everyone else” on a range of risks, the perceptions of which are all measured with the “industrial strength” measure.

What do we see?  Lots of cool things!

For one, we see that those “fearless” white hierarchical individualistic males aren’t so brave after all.  Sure climate change doesn’t scare them, but the potential impact of restrictions on handguns on the “health, safety, and prosperity” of members of our society sends chills up their spine.

Environmental and government regulations are, of course, scary to them too. Those can wreck the economy. Ask any hierarchical individualistic white male for evidence & he’ll have no trouble supplying it — just look at the financial collapse of 2008.

And let’s hope that Obama — who in the eyes of a hierarchical white male individualist likely can’t be counted on to do much of anything good — will hold firm on marijuana criminalization.  Most people don’t think so, but the white male hierarchical individualist knows that the dangers to society from decriminalization would be devastating.

And what do you know: guns certainly aren’t dangerous (“people kill people” etc); but privately owned drones— yow! Terrifying! (Mystery — who is disgusted, and why, by drones — half-solved.)

Hey there are some other cool things here too, don’t you think?  Look at childhood vaccines. No one — not white hierarchical individualistic males nor everyone else — is concerned.  A surprise only to those who believe what they read in the papers, where the ravings of a small sect regularly transmute into a “growing crisis of public confidence” in vaccines. (To anticipate comments: Yes, the small sect is an unreasoning, noxious health menace and should be opposed; but no, that doesn’t mean that it’s a sensible risk-communication strategy  to miselad the public about the facts, which show no slippage in the last decade in childhood vaccination rates from their historic levels of well over 90%, and no meaningful increase in the “exemption” rate, which has remained < 1%.)

And here’s something I wasn’t expecting at all: Look at genetically modified foods.  No cultural dissensus–that’s not new. But the apparent consensus that GM foods are risky– more certainly, than global warming, and more too than anything except terrorism — that’s a change relative to what I’ve observed in various surveys like this that I’ve done over the yrs.

Is that evidence that the effort to protect the science communication environment from being polluted on this issue is failing? Could be; although I still think that the most important thing is to avoid cultural polarization, since that’s the form of pollution, I’m convinced, most toxic to the reasoning faculty that ordinary members of the public— of all cultural outlooks — use to discern what’s known to science.

Okay– that was fun, wasn’t it?

And don’t forget about the wildly popular Cultural Cognition Site game show WSMD?, JA!”  Been a long time since we played that!


Douglas, M. & Wildavsky, A.B. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. (University of California Press, Berkeley; 1982).

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)

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).

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