The “white male effect” refers to the until-now unexplained tendency of white males to fear all manner of risk less than women and minorities. Published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, this paper reports the results of an empirical study finding that that “the white male effect” derives from the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions protective of identities they enjoy by virtue of cultural norms that feature race- and gender-differentiation in roles relating to putatively dangerous activities.
Why do white men fear various risks less than women and minorities? Known as the “white male effect,” this pattern is well documented but poorly understood. This paper proposes a new explanation: identity-protective cognition. Putting work on the cultural theory of risk together with work on motivated cognition in social psychology suggests that individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their preferred form of social organization. This dynamic, it is hypothesized, drives the white male effect, which reflects the risk skepticism that hierarchical and individualistic white males display when activities integral to their cultural identities are challenged as harmful. The article presents the results of an 1,800-person study that confirmed that cultural worldviews interact with the impact of gender and race on risk perception in patterns that suggest cultural-identity-protective cognition. It also discusses the implication of these findings for risk regulation and communication.