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« What antagonistic memes look like: the case of the Zika virus | Main | Weekend update: Could Trump really win? What people do & don't *fear* says, "sure, why not?" »

New paper: Zika risk perceptions & culturally antagonistic memes!

Latest from the APPC/CCP "Science of scienc communication initiative working paper series" (previous installments include Kahan, D.M. ‘Ordinary science intelligence’: a science-comprehension measure for study of risk and science communication, with notes on evolution and climate change, J. Risk Res, 1-22 (2016), & Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem, Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015)). More on this paper "tomorrow."


Culturally Antagonistic Memes and the Zika Virus: An
Experimental Test


This paper examines a remedy for a defect in existing accounts of public risk perceptions. The accounts in question feature two dynamics: the affect heuristic, which emphasizes the impact of visceral feelings on information processing; and the cultural cognition thesis, which describes the tendency of individuals to form beliefs that reflect and reinforce their group commitments. The defect is the failure of these two dynamics, when combined, to explain the peculiar selectivity of public risk controversies: despite their intensity and disruptiveness, such controversies occur less frequently than the affect heuristic and the cultural cognition thesis seem to predict. To account for this aspect of public risk perceptions, the paper describes a model that adds the phenomenon of culturally antagonistic memes—argumentative tropes that fuse positions on risk with contested visions of the best life. Arising adventitiously, antagonistic memes transform affect and cultural cognition from consensus-generating, truth-convergent influences on information processing into conflictual, identity-protective ones. The paper supports this model with experimental results involving perceptions of the risk of the Zika virus: a general sample of U.S. subjects, whose members were not polarized when exposed to neutral information, formed culturally polarized affective reactions when exposed to information that was pervaded with antagonistic memes linking Zika to global warming; when exposed to comparable information linking Zika to unlawful immigration, the opposed affective stances of the subjects flipped in direction. Normative and prescriptive implications of these results are discussed.  


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Reader Comments (9)

terribly insignificant point...

Figure 5:

Towards the bottom of the figure...

Did you really want "individualism" to modify egalitarians along both sides of the individualism/communitarianism dividing line, or should it be "Egalitarian-individualism" on the left side and "Egalitarianism-communitarianism" on the right side (of the dividing line)?

July 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

==> What’s obvious, then, is that actors in a position to do so should combat the emergence of antagonistic
memes. ==>

While not to advocate for emerging antagonistic memes...

Part of the problem is that the antagonistic memes are often generated simply because of the preexisting ideological cleavages.

For example, virtually any position that Obama or Trump hold will generate antagonistic memes. IOW, simply by Obama taking a position on Zika, the Republican antagonistic meme generation machine will kick into gear.

Again, I question your (uniform) assignment of direction of causality. It isn't simply, IMO, that antagonistic memes generate polarization...(your discussion of TM-immunity/vulnerability notwithstanding) but also that existing polarization leads to the generation of antagonistic memes.

July 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Nice, catch, thanks.

I agree with you that parisan cues make things partisan & that when things are partisan, what partisan advocates say will be interpreted in partisan ways.

But the claim here is more specific. First, it is about how positions on facts or risks *become* symbols of identity.

Second, it is about contribution that self-propogating ideas, tropes make to creating the symbols.

Rs & Ds are both for having mandatory HBV vaccination or at least don't care one way or the other. But the HPV vaccine divides them b/c of associations that are self-propogating. Good luck even finding who started them.

Right now Rs & Ds support funding efforts to contain Zika. Obama supports it; that doesn't prevent Rs from being for it too. Congress can't pass a bill b/c the two sides won't agree on amount or on amendments to bills etc-- but neither side is saying that Zika risks are a hoax etc

But if at some point in the future, positions on Zika get assimilated to positions on global warming or unlawful immigration, that will be because of how the issue was framed. And it won't really matter who initiated that framing; indeed, it will likely be impossible to find who first started doing that.

July 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Based on the comment above, reading the actual paper is scheduled for tomorrow:

IMHO positions on Zika are very tied to positions on womens health clinics, birth control and abortion. What steps should a woman take to either not get pregnant or deal with a difficult situation if she is infected with Zika while pregnant? It actually is intrinsic and does not need framing. If we decide to fight the mosquitoes that carry the virus with GMO modified mosquitoes that becomes an inherent issue also.

Why do you think R's support funding Zika? Their support in Congress has been sharply limited and proactively cutting back on women's clinics They've also tried to link it to cutting back on pesticide regulation. Additionally it has been predicated on simultaneously reducing Ebola funding.

IMHO R's are acting as if this is an opening to further semi related partisan agenda items, and actually fighting Zika is an afterthought. If they wanted to fight Zika within their ideological restraints they could come out massively funding vaccine development. Success there could take sex amd pregnancy out of the picture.

July 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGythia Weis

In my opinion, more interesting questions about both HBV and HPV center around what we can learn now about the public health impacts of having focused on childhood vaccinations as the solution to these diseases. Both have very long lag times between vaccination and time of expected problems with the diseases. HPV vaccine has the additional issue of not being effective against all cervical cancer causing forms of the virus.

Blame the anti-vaxxers is a way of enforcing the Big Pharma storyline. I believe that it is actually a form of science discussion pollution. It obscures significant facts such as populations underserved by medical clinics, need for adult boosters, and other factors not directly related to encouraging childhood vaccinations which provide an accessible insured class of patients and for which pharmaceutical companies are covered by anti-liability laws.

In the case of HPV: Cervical cancer rates are actually UP! " the results of this analysis demonstrate an overall increase in HPV-associated cancer incidence, from 10.8 per 100,000 persons during 2004–2008 to 11.7 per 100,000 persons during 2008–2012, despite a slight decrease in the rate of cervical carcinoma (4). Part of this increase is because of the inclusion of additional subsites for oropharyngeal cancer; however, the increase persisted when these subsites were excluded from analysis. "

What might be the most effective way to utilize public health dollars?

Using information from the NIH

Access to clinics and treatment:
"In certain populations and geographic areas of the United States, cervical cancer incidence and death rates are still high, due in large part to limited access to cervical cancer screening. "
"Highly sensitive and specific molecular tests are now available to identify DNA from high-risk HPV types in cervical specimens. HPV DNA testing can help to determine whether a woman needs further medical attention following a borderline or ambiguous Pap test result"

In my opinion this also means that older women could be tested and vaccinated if not immune to the virus forms covered by the vaccine. I've asked gynocologists about this in a hypothetical way only to be told that they would not do it because it doesn't follow set protocols.

New vaccine development: "Although Cervarix and Gardasil protect against infection with HPV types 16 and 18, these vaccines do not protect against HPV types found in approximately 30% of cervical cancers."

Existing vaccines are not even consistant as to which viral forms they protect against: " Gardasil is a mixture of VLPs for HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18, and Cervarix is a mixture of VLPs for HPV types 16 and 18."

More research is needed on why some women have the infection and clear it without further problems and some women get cancer. This might also help with dealing with oral and other area HPV infections for which there is no Pap smear test analogy.

Various forms of hepetitis infections, not just B, are also increasing.

This ought to lead to pressure to expand vaccines to cover the other forms. It ought to lead to public health outreach to attack the disease in populations where it is most prevalent, such as IV drug users.

The idea that the focus ought to be on childhood vaccination for either HBV or HPV are ones that are self serving to Big Pharma and encourages complacency in dealing with actual public health outcomes in the time frame of at least the next decade. So, in my opinion, the real issues of cultural cognition are in why it is that the anti-vaxxer fight story line is so perpetuated by those who see themselves as supporters of science, when such robust attention is lacking for other issues affecting often non middle class populations.

Which gets to Zika. Zika is much less of an issue if you have air conditioning and live in landscape controlled environments with fewer mosquitoes to begin with. Thus, Zika threatens Puerto Rico much more than Miami.

People arriving from areas where Zika is more prevalent may be an issue. Although not because of their legal status. Exposure to the outdoors would be key. That could be due to poverty, or it could be due to athletic endeavors or tourism. Screening and monitoring might be an appropriate public health approach.

Global climate change cuts both ways. Areas with increased heavy rainfalls and warmer temperatures would increase mosquito breeding opportunities. But on the other hand, increased dry heat, as in the desert of southwestern US might be helpful in decreasing mosquitoes. Again, entirely appropriate issues for public discussion.

July 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGythia Weis

@GAythia-- you make knowledgeable points about the on the vaccines. But do you think that the contrasting reactions to the HBV vs. HPV have anything to do with the properties of the vaccines? Anything to do w/ anything other than weird bunch of accidents ? NIce counter to @Josh's point that "antagonistic memes" are endogenous to polarized politics

July 20, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Well I think Merck learned a thing or two about pitfalls of running a pharma marketing program through state legislatures. But did science advocates learn much about maximizing public health outcowmes for all? Or isn't this effort a tit for tat battle between two sides with a vested interest in keeping the public conversation narrow?

I think Big pharma has one set of reasons not to change its profit model away from a childhood focus. And another set of people (Wakefield and various "alt med types") has learned to freeload publicity for themselves off of that. Aided by "because SCIENCE" types who are trying to burnish their own reputations and sometimes book sales. A recent example of this was the movie "Vaxxed" which was not shown at the Tribeca film festival. There is a line somewhere between getting this film withdrawn in NYC and ensuring it gets Nationwide publicity.

Meanwhile public health officials have put great effort into vaccine efforts such as "cocoon of safety targeting parents and other adult caregivers or the Grandma as Big Bad Wolf ads in the AARP magazine. Or efforts to reach IV drug users to prevent or at least get effective treatment to infants that may actually be at risk of contracting Hep B. IMHO science communicators are under reporting these efforts and thus not giving them the support that they deserve. And THAT is the culturally cognitive science of science communication issue which needs to be tackled. Because they are on "our" side and are people who ought to be most easily approachable by science based arguments.

And ensuring that the "pro science" side of the debate was flexible enough to incorporate best availabe science that was not locked down in a set tribal meme would be a significsnt step forward. IMHO.

And as a byproduct word probably increase a public atmosphere in which,as you've argued,it is acknowledged that childhood vaccines are widely accepted.

July 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia. Weis

I think that the important t issue here is what happens going forward. We know that the public Is not yet polarized but easily could be. At the same time we can see that Congress has yet to take effective e action to battle Zika at is in regards on the subject beginning to use some of those polarizing memes. Furthermore funding proposals from the President seem to involve shifting funds towards Zika and say from Ebola.

Overall this demonstrates weaknesses in effective communication leading to policy implementations that deal with e.erging diseases and epidemics. While heroic efforts on the part of some, local and international medical professionals did help to contain Ebola and prevent its further spread, overall the international health community was still gearing up to install hospitals and clinics as that wave of the epidemic subsided. And now we are cutting back to ding as if blind to the concept that it will re-emerge.

Summary with Zika our response is way too slow.. There are small pharma startups that have been working on vaccine development and so on genetic modifications to the disease carrying mosquitos. But better funded Big Pharma company is have been lower to participate. And in my opinion we lack well andcorrelated federally and international funded basic research programs to proactively address emerging disese issues.

In my opinion part of the problem is that many science e communicators have gotten locked in to a mode in which they gain traction with a responsive audience by battling unpopular to that audience anti vaxxers in what is IMHO a fit of tribal affirming self righteousness. And Big Pharma could develop vaccine wth a guaranteed customer base free from legal liability. We've designed a system that does not foster taking risks to investigate emerging diseases or to get those diseases onto the public radar in time for effective policy decisions.

Thus a main cultural cognition issue of the moment ought to be where is the wave of science communicators trying to generate outrage and concerns about the lack of lead time in dealing with the threat of Zika?

If we don't take steps to do anything else the remaining response will need to be to use a heck of a lot of pesticides to limit the impact of mosquitos. But we also might have more pressure to perform abortions.

To decide not to decide is to decide, as my grandmother was fond of saying.

July 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia. Weis

On Zika, and what my grandmother said:

Dear Washington: The Time to Prepare for Zika Has Come and Gone

"If I were the referee for your negotiations — which ought to commence this week in light of Florida’s local mosquito-carried Zika cases — the allowable focus for partisan debate between the houses of Congress and the White House would be extremely narrow. I would rule everything from the future of Planned Parenthood to pesticide regulations, shifting money from Ebola responses and existing federal and state accounts, the budget deficit, national debt — all off the table. The one, and only, topic open for debate? How much new money must be allocated on an emergency basis to meet the needs of the nation’s scientists, public health leaders, hospitals, maternal health providers, and mosquito and environmental health experts in order to limit the number of Americans who fall ill to Zika, pass the virus sexually to their partners or in utero to their fetuses, miscarry, or are born with neurological deficits and deformations."

But there is a fundamental problem with the prescription of the author above. This issue, like others is fundamentally culturally divisive. Depending on the cultural values that the members of the culture want to promote going forward, decisions could be made to fight Zika with support from any or all of the institutions she mentions as needing to be kept "off the table" The procrastination makes timely vaccine development unlikely. Like Ebola, there is likely to be a crest to this wave and then complacency. Which is then likely to be followed by a later wave. We clearly do not have the research institutions in place to deal with these emerging diseases effectively. .She is assuming, I believe, that an expansion of the institutions of the status quo are maintained. But, in many parts of the US, especially the Deep South which is most vulnerable here, there has been a serious decrease in Planned Parenthood and other clinics that can do abortions. Not every place is willing to do mosquito spraying, even with the pesticides available now. Not every place has strong public health facilities in place. Some places are more vulnerable to travelers from infected areas than others. (I note this morning that cruise ship stocks are way down. imagine a ship with infected people on board. Which port will allow them to land?).

The issue really does involve contemplating "What kind of society do you want to have"? It is possible to do nothing. Darwin in action. Some members of society could emerge genetically stronger for this, or perhaps the disease would embed itself and drag the society down over time. Science could be used to inform a number of potential paths. But the decisions really do involve values as to what kind of culture a society wants to have. That decision really can't be avoided. If we do get a decision at all before the disease fades back a bit for a time, I think it is likely to be one that compromises between diverse values. Science could inform those compromises. But that would not mean that the decision path is the one closest to implementing the best available science. In my opinion, the time for a proactive decision using cutting edge science and public health methods that could have prevented Zika, once it emerged with the link to microcephally from expanding either in Brazil or elsewhere has come and gone.

August 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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