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Wednesday
Aug022017

Culture vs. Cognition: a false dichotomy? Amen!

A basic premise of our research since its inception, the fusion of cultural outlooks and cognition of risk is the defining characteristic of the cultural cognition thesis.

From Kahan, D.M., Slovic, P., Braman, D. & Gastil, J. Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk. Harvard Law Review 119, 1071-1109 (2006), pp. 1083-85:

The claim behind cultural cognition is that culture is prior to facts in societal disputes over risk. Normatively, culture might be prior to facts in the sense that cultural values determine what significance individuals attach to the consequences of environmental regulation, gun control, drug criminalization, and the like. But more importantly, culture is cognitively prior to facts in the sense that cultural values shape what individuals perceive the consequences of such policies to be. Individuals selectively credit and dismiss factual claims in a manner that supports their preferred vision of the good society. . . .

Although one can imagine alternative explanations for cultural variation in risk perceptions, cultural cognition offers a distinctively psychometric one. On this view, the impact of cultural worldviews is not an alternative to, but rather a vital component of, the various psychological and social mechanisms that determine perceptions of risk. These mechanisms, cultural cognition asserts, are endogenous to culture. That is, the direction in which they point risk perceptions depends on individuals’ cultural values.

Consider the affect heuristic. Emotional responses to putatively dangerous activities strongly determine risk perceptions, but what determines whether those responses are positive or negative? The answer, according to cultural cognition, is culture: persons’ worldviews infuse various activities — firearm possession, nuclear power generation, red-meat consumption — with despised or valued social meanings, which in turn determine whether individuals react with anxiety or calmness, dread or admiration, toward those activities. This account recognizes, in line with the best psychological accounts, that emotions are not thoughtless surges of affect, but rather valueladen judgments shaped by social norms.

A similar account can be given of probability neglect. Individuals display less sensitivity to the improbability of a bad outcome when that outcome is attended by intensely negative affect. But insofar as the valence and strength of individuals’ affective responses are influenced by their cultural appraisals of putatively dangerous activities (guns, nuclear power plants, drug use, casual sex, etc.), probability neglect will again be culture dependent.

Availability, too, is likely to be endogenous to culture. The magnitude of a perceived risk depends on how readily an individual can recall instances of misfortune associated with that risk. But how likely someone is to take note of such misfortunes and to recall them almost certainly depends on her values: to avoid cognitive dissonance, individuals are likely to attend selectively to information in a way that reinforces rather than undermines their commitment to the view that certain activities (say, gun possession, or economic commerce) are either noble or base.

Culture will also condition the impact of social influences on risk perceptions. Most individuals are not in a position to determine for themselves whether childhood vaccines induce autism, silicone breast implants cause immune system dysfunction, private firearm possession reduces or increases crime, and so on. Accordingly, they must trust others to tell them which risk claims, supported by which forms of highly technical empirical evidence, to believe. And the people they trust, not surprisingly, are the ones who share their cultural worldviews — and who are likely to be disposed to particular positions by virtue of affect, probability neglect, availability, and similar mechanisms. Risk perceptions are thus likely to be uniform within cultural groups and diverse across them. Accordingly, group polarization and cascades are endogenous to culture, too.

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Reader Comments (2)

But more importantly, culture is cognitively prior to facts in the sense that cultural values shape what individuals perceive the consequences of such policies to be. Individuals selectively credit and dismiss factual claims in a manner that supports their preferred vision of the good society. . . .

I guess I'm missing something, but it seems to me that maybe this assumes knowledge that we don't have: Basically, we don't actually know how culture and identity interact, and we don't know how various components go together to create a coherent definition of "culture" in context and for individuals.

Am I of a different culture than Henry Kissenger or Ari Fleisher or Sheldon Adleson or Bill Krisotl, and of the same culture as Barack Obama - even though in many ways I share fewer cultural attributes but more risk assessments with Barack? Am I of the same culture as Sarah Palin, a white American politician or Sadiq Kahn, a Muslim, British politician? I would venture that my assessments lie more with Sadiq when it comes to social disputes over risk.

So in those situations, how would we determine that culture shaped perceived risk-related policies? How is it that culture lines up cognitively prior to facts??

And how would we explain cultural values lining up prior to facts, when the interpretation of facts and perceptions of risk, do 180s (as with the individual insurance mandate)? Does it mean that "cultural values" reversed en masse in that group? I don't think so. I think that it means that. maybe, "cultural values" are a second order manifestation of something deeper - the sense of identity, be it the sense of identity within a group or are more independent and individualized sense of identity. Or maybe it means that culture and identity don't exist in distinction from each other, in which case what does it mean to say that "cultural values shape" perceptions?

The answer, according to cultural cognition, is culture: persons’ worldviews infuse various activities — firearm possession, nuclear power generation, red-meat consumption — with despised or valued social meanings, which in turn determine whether individuals react with anxiety or calmness, dread or admiration, toward those activities.

Again, this seems to me to presuppose a definition of "culture," and strangely isolates identity as a related and inextricable causal mechanism in play. People's views on "cultural values," say, w/r/t same-sex marriage or inter-racial marriage or publicly stoning thieves shift over time. Cultural values do not exist as some kind of monolith that lie independent of, or preceding or superseding, identity orientation

A similar account can be given of probability neglect...
[...]
...Availability, too, is likely to be endogenous to culture...


Culture, or identity? Are they the same? Does one lie ahead of the other in a line of causation and influence?

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@JOshua--the whole point of empirical research is to conjure observable indirect mesaures of what we "don't know"--i.e., can't see directly

August 2, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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