Is the controversy over the mandatory vaccination of school girls for HPV a cultural one? Yes, because what and whom individuals believe about the risks and benefits of the vaccine, experimental data show, are shaped by their cultural commitments (published in Law & Human Behavior).
The cultural cognition hypothesis holds that individuals are disposed to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce their commitments to contested views of the good society. This paper reports the results of a study that used the controversy over mandatory HPV vaccination to test the cultural cognition hypothesis. Although public health officials have recommended that all girls aged 11 or 12 be vaccinated for HPV–a virus that causes cervical cancer and that is transmitted by sexual contact–political controversy has blocked adoption of mandatory school-enrollment vaccination programs in all but one state. A multi-stage experimental study of a large and diverse sample of American adults (N = 1,500) found evidence that cultural cognition generates disagreement about the risks and benefits of the HPV vaccine. It does so, the experiment determined, through two mechanisms: biased assimilation, and the credibility heuristic. In addition to describing the study, the paper discusses the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.