Cultural Cognition & Motivated Reasoning

Cultural cognition has grown from the ideas of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky.  The research, ideas, etc of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School are at – home . Dan Kahan leads the project.  The website is a great resource and there is little reason to provide much here other than to try to get you to visit it.  I will first provide the basic concept as set out by Dan Cultural_cognition_of_risk1-512x356Kahan and Don Braman.  Then I will provide quick summaries of the 2012 paper by Kahan, Peters, Wittlin, Slovic, Larrimore Ouellette, Braman & Mandel, “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks” and Kahan’s 2012 paper, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study.”  They are rather remarkable.

The “cultural cognition thesis” asserts that people’s beliefs about risk are shaped by their core values. Individuals conform their views about what sorts of activities endanger societal welfare, and what sorts of policies effectively combat those dangers, to their cultural evaluation of those activities.

The theory of cultural cognition rests on a  framework for classifying individuals’ cultural values. This framework (patterned on Douglas, 1970) characterizes “cultural worldviews,” or preferences for how to organize society, along two crosscutting axes: “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism.” People who subscribe to a “hierarchical” worldview believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics (e.g., gender, wealth, lineage, ethnicity). Those who subscribe to an “egalitarian” worldview believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed equally and without regard to such characteristics.  People who subscribe to a “communitarian” worldview believe that societal interests should take precedence over individual ones and that society should bear the responsibility for securing the conditions of individual flourishing. Those who subscribe to an “individualistic” worldview believe that individuals should secure the conditions of their own flourishing without collective interference or assistance.

2012-12-12 08.29.13-1Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. Some argue that the public knows too little science to understand the evidence, and that widespread limits on technical reasoning  force people to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. Kahan conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. They surveyed 1500 people to determine their concerns about the risks of climate change, their science knowledge and numeracy, and their position on the hierarchical-egalitarian and individualism-communitarianism axes. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. In fact, the most literate and capable were the most divided in their views.  In other words, the most knowledgable hierarchial individualist was the least concerned with climate change risk while the most knowledge egalitarian communitarian was the most concerned.

Because the contribution that culture makes to disagreement grows as science literacy and numeracy increase, it is not plausible to view cultural cognition as a heuristic substitute for the knowledge or capacities that some argue the public as lacking.

On the contrary, Kahan’s findings could be viewed as evidence of how remarkably well equipped ordinary individuals are to discern which stances toward scientific information secure their personal interests. For the ordinary individual, the most consequential effect of his beliefs about climate change is likely to be on his relations with his peers.  Both to avoid dissonance and to secure their group standing, individuals seek out and credit information supportive of shared world views.

donkeyIn the second study, Kahan surveyed 1600 people. The subjects furnished standard demographic data, including political affiliations and outlooks. Subjects also completed the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). CRT is a three-question test that measures the disposition to engage in the higher-level forms of reasoning associated with analysis and deliberation.  The study found that CRT magnifies ideologically motivated reasoning and gives further reason to doubt that any link between traits such as “closed mindedness” and “aversion to complexity” are related to motivated reasoning.

Kahan asserts that the “Expressive Rationality Thesis” or ERT—was fully supported by the study. That theory alone predicted both that ideologically motivated reasoning would by symmetric between both Republicans and Democrats and that it would be amplified by higher CRT. Those hypotheses reflect a theory that again sees ideological motivated reasoning not as a reasoning deficiency but as a reasoning strategy suited to the interest that individuals have in conveying their membership in and loyalty to affinity groups central to their personal well being.

These findings point to the need to provide risk communication that does not bring out ideologically motivated reasoning.  One example of this is to provide trustworthy communicators.

Dan M. Kahan, Ellen Peters, Maggie Wittlin, Paul Slovic, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Donald Braman & Gregory Mandel.(2012)   “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.”  Nature Climate Change 2,  732-735.

Kahan, D. M., & Braman, D. (2006). Cultural Cognition of Public Policy. Yale Journal of Law and Public Policy, 24, 147-170,

Kahan, D.M.,(2012) “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study.” Cultural Cognition Project.

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