This essay uses insights from the study of risk perception to remedy a deficit in liberal constitutional theory—and vice versa. The deficit common to both is inattention to cognitive illiberalism—the threat that unconscious biases pose to enforcement of basic principles of liberal neutrality. Liberal constitutional theory can learn to anticipate and control cognitive illiberalism from the study of biases such as the cultural cognition of risk. In exchange, the study of risk perception can learn from constitutional theory that the detrimental impact of such biases is not limited to distorted weighing of costs and benefits; by infusing such determinations with contentious social meanings, cultural cognition forces citizens of diverse outlooks to experience all manner of risk regulation as struggles to impose a sectarian orthodoxy. Cognitive illiberalism is a foreseeable if paradoxical consequence of the same social conditions that make a liberal society conducive to the growth of scientific knowledge on risk mitigation. The use of scientific knowledge to mitigate the threat that cognitive illiberalism poses to those very conditions is integral to securing the constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.
This brief "World View" essay published in Nature takes a critical stance against the pop-psychology claim (one increasingly prevalent in the media) that public controversy over climate change reflects limitations in human rationality. On the contrary, it argues, people are reacting too rationally to climate change information: because positions on climate change have become a marker of one's group allegiances, it is in the interests of individuals to attend to information in a manner that promotes beliefs that help them effectively signal their commitment to the cultural group on whom their status and well-being most depends. To fix this problem requires breaking the link between facts on climate chnage and antagonistic cultural meanings. In sum, "It's the polluted science communication envrionment, stupid!," and not stupid people, that accounts for the difficult we are in.
Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project and published in the Journal Nature Climate Change found no support for this position. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.
We conducted a two-nation study (United States, n = 1500; England, n = 1500) to test a novel theory of science communication. The cultural cognition thesis posits that individuals make extensive reliance on cultural meanings in forming perceptions of risk. The logic of the cultural cognition thesis suggests the potential value of a distinctive two-channel science communication strategy that combines information content (“Channel 1”) with cultural meanings (“Channel 2”) selected to promote open-minded assessment of information across diverse communities. In the study, scientific information content on climate change was held constant while the cultural meaning of that information was experimentally manipulated. Consistent with the study hypotheses, we found that making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions helps to offset cultural polarization over the validity of climate-change science. We also tested the hypothesis, derived from competing models of science communication, that exposure to information on geoengineering would provoke discounting of climate-change risks generally. Contrary to this hypothesis, we found that subjects exposed to information about geoengineering were slightly more concerned about climate change risks than those assigned to a control condition.
The Supreme Court 2010 Term—Foreword: Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law
Why is the “neutrality” of Supreme Court decisionmaking a matter of persistent political disagreement? What should be done to mitigate such conflict? Once the predominant focus of constitutional law scholarship, efforts to answer these questions are now widely viewed as evincing misunderstandings of what can be coherently demanded of theory and realistically expected of judges. This paper, published in the Harvard Law Review's annual Supreme Court issue, attributes the Court’s “neutrality crisis” to a very different form of misunderstanding. The study of motivated reasoning (in particular cultural cognition) shows that individuals are predisposed to fit their perceptions of policy-relevant facts to their group commitments. In the course of public deliberations, these facts become suffused with antagonistic meanings that transform utilitarian policymaking into occasions for symbolic status competition. These same dynamics, the paper argues, make constitutional decisionmaking the focus of status competition among groups whose members are unconsciously motivated to fit perceptions of the Court’s decisions to their values. Theories of constitutional neutrality do not address the distinctive cognitive groundings of this form of illiberal conflict; indeed, they make it worse by promoting idioms of justification, in Court opinions and public discourse generally, that reinforce the predisposition of diverse groups to attribute culturally partisan aims to those who disagree with them. The divisive effects of motivated reasoning on policy deliberations can be offset by science communication techniques that avoid selectively threatening any group’s cultural worldview. Similarly, public confidence in the Supreme Court’s neutrality can be restored by the Court’s communication of meanings that uniformly affirm the values of culturally diverse citizens.
The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change
The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: the individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.
Social scientists have used mock juror studies to produce a vast body of literature showing how different variables influence juror decision-making. This paper presents a computer model that extrapolates findings about jurors to juries, showing how variables of interest affect the decisions not only of individuals but also of deliberative bodies. The computer model simulates jurors from a specified community, imputes initial votes to them conditional on a user-specified model, and uses Robert MacCoun’s new “social burden of proof” framework to predict the likelihood that the jury will come out for either side, given those initial votes. The paper then demonstrates the usefulness of the model by applying it to the Cultural Cognition Project’s study of the factors that influence the verdict in acquaintance rape cases. The value of the model for prosecutors, policy-makers, and legal scholars is discussed.
Where do our intuitions about wrongdoing come from? In this paper, we critique punishment naturalism -- the notion that such intuitions are independent of culture. By way of contrast we describe an alternative approach, punishment realism, that develops the core insights of legal realism via psychology and anthropology. Punishment realism, we argue, offers a more complete account of agreement and disagreement over the criminal law and provides a more detailed and credible account of the social and cognitive mechanisms that move people to either agree or disagree with one another on whether and how much praise or punishment a given act deserves. The differences between these two empirical accounts also entail contrasting implications for how those interested in maximizing social welfare and public satisfaction with the law should approach questions of crime and punishment.
Why doesn't "scientific consensus" settle disputes about climate change and other issues? The answer, a CCP experimental study suggests, is not that only some citizens view scientific opinion as important, but rather that citizens of diverse cultural outlooks form different perceptions of what most scientists believe.
There is a culture war in America over science. Why? And what should be done to promote the ability of culturally diverse citizens to agree on how science can inform their common interests in health, security, and prosperity? This article, published in Nature, uses the findings of Cultural Cognition Project studies to address these questions.
What do we now know about public perceptions of the risks of nanotechnology? What do we have good reason to expect about how those perceptions will evolve? A brief commentary, published in Nature Nanotechnology, addresses these questions. The commentary also identifies appropriate steps to extend investigation of nanotechnology risk perceptions and discusses the contribution this form of study makes to understanding of public risk perceptions and communication generally.
How the law defines rape, a CCP study finds, matters much less than decisionmakers' cultural predispositions, which shape their perceptions of consent and other facts in "date rape" cases (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Law Review).
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.
How does cultural conflict influence public policymaking? Surprisingly, not by generating moral disputes over the ends to be pursued by law but rather by generating empirical disagreements over the consequences of economic, crime-control, national security, and other policies designed to promote our common interests.
Based on a video shot from inside a police cruiser, the U.S. Supreme court concluded "no reasonable juror" could find that the risk posed by a fleeing motorist did not warrant deadly force (the deliberate ramming of his car) to stop him. But a study by the Cultural Cognition Project (published in the Harvard Law Review) finds that perceptions of risk among persons who viewed the tape were highly conditional on those persons' cultural worldviews.
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.
Do emotions interfere with the rational evaluation of risk? Or is the rational evaluation of risk impossible without the aid of emotion? Drawing on data collected by the Cultural Cognition Project, this paper (published in the University of Pennslyvania Law Review ) suggests a revisionist interpretation of recent studies on the centrality of emotion to risk perception.