Second National Risk & Culture Study

Americans are culturally polarized on a range of societal risks–from global warming to domestic terrorism, from school shootings to vaccination of school-age girls for HPV. Reporting the results of surveys and experiments involving some 5,000 Americans, the study identifies the causes of this condition and steps that can be taken to counteract it.

The Second National Risk and Culture Study reports the results of studies conducted as part of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition Project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School. Studies were conducted over a nine month period and involved a diverse sample of some 5,000 Americans. Click here for the Study report.

Principal findings include:

  • Individuals of diverse cultural outlooks–hierarchical and egalitarian, individualistic and communitarian–hold sharply opposed beliefs about a range of societal risks, including those associated with climate change, gun ownership, public health, and national security. Differences in these basic values exert substantially more influence over risk perceptions than does any other individual characteristic, including gender, race, socioeconomic status, education, and political ideology and party affiliation.
  • In the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007, Americans were culturally polarized on whether stronger gun control measures at schools and universities would reduce the incidence of campus gun massacres or instead render it more difficult for students and teachers to defend themselves against such attacks. The tragedy did not change public views on gun control overall.
  • In the future, there is a substantial likelihood that Americans will become culturally polarized over what are currently novel, relatively low profile risk issues, including the dangers associated with nanotechnology and the vaccination of school age girls against HPV infection. The source of such divisions is the tendency of individuals to process factual information about risk in a manner that fits cultural predispositions.
  • Individuals’ expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation.
  • How individuals respond to arguments about the risks associated with mandatory HPV vaccination for school age girls is highly dependent on the perceived values of the persons making such arguments. Individuals who are culturally predisposed to a particular position are even more likely to form that view when it is espoused by an advocate who shares their cultural outlooks. Such individuals are less likely to form that view–and cultural polarization is reduced–when a person who shares their values advocates a position on the HPV vaccination that is contrary to such individuals’ cultural predispositions.

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