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Cultural Cognition Project Studies Democratic Decision-Making

Dan Kahan, Deputy Dean and Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, points out that a democratic government is required to reach policy decisions on issues most citizens know little about. "You hear about a chemical the name of which is even complicated to pronounce, and you're supposed to have an opinion. How in a democracy do people form opinions about those things?" asks Kahan. He is leading a multi-disciplinary consortium of scholars, called the Cultural Cognition Project, to try answer to this and other questions about democratic decision making.

The project started by looking at the issue of gun control, using a series of questions included in a national social sciences survey. Says Kahan, "The question was, what sorts of gun risks people took more seriously--the risk that you'll be shot by some bad guy or that your kid or you will be injured in a gun accident, on the one hand, or the risk that if you don't have a gun you won't be able to defend yourself from the burglar." Kahan and his group predicted that people's cultural outlook would reliably predict how they felt about the risks of guns. They got promising results and obtained funding from the National Science Foundation to conduct a national survey of their own.

Kahan and others working on the project, including Donald Braman '05, the Irving S. Ribicoff Fellow at YLS, refined the questions for the survey--conducting pretests and focus groups and studying all the existing literature on these issues. Braman says, "We got interesting responses from the focus groups. Over the course of a series of tests we honed down to the most effective and coherent set of questions." They developed two scales of cultural orientation. The first measures where one falls on a spectrum of hierarchy-egalitarianism--which Kahan summarizes with the question, "How much differentiation do you think there should be in society?" The second scale measures individualism-solidarism--or, according to Kahan, "How much do you think that the interests of the community should come first? How much do you think individuals should be protected from interference in their lives?"

The survey, called the National Culture and Risk Survey, was conducted by phone and gathered responses from 1,800 randomly contacted people. The results confirmed the project's original insight that cultural orientation would more strongly predict people's perceptions of various risks than other individual characteristics, such as gender, race, or income. For instance, hierarchical and individualist people generally opposed gun control. The survey went beyond the issue of gun control, though. For example, it found that hierarchical individuals were more likely to think that abortion was a risky procedure, whereas people of egalitarian and individualistic worldviews perceived abortion as being relatively safe.

"We have a pretty good theory about why you would expect to see this," says Kahan. "People have to ask other people what they think about whether [an issue like] global warming is a serious threat.... They can't figure it out necessarily by trial and error or just by trying to read an economics journal or something like this. So, who do they ask? Well they're talking to and accepting the word of other people who are like them."

Their study of people's risk perceptions has convinced Kahan that there's no such thing as a generalized attitude toward risk. "The hierarchist is very much disposed to dismiss the idea that guns are risky," says Kahan. "But at the same time the hierarchist is terrified of certain other activities, such as obtaining surgery from a doctor who's infected with HIV or the health effects of marijuana. Why? Because these activities are associated with deviant forms of behavior, and hierarchists want to believe that deviant forms of behavior also cause bad results in the world."

The participants in the Cultural Cognition Project have written a number of papers that are currently moving toward publication and have made many of their findings available through the project's website. "We have all this great data," says Kahan. "But now we want to be really concrete about what the mechanisms are." To push their research ahead, Kahan and Braman are developing more surveys, including one that will test whether people find policy arguments more persuasive when the arguments are made by a representative of a particular cultural outlook. Explains Braman: "People will see the arguments as culturally inflected arguments [based on who's making them] and will be more or less prepared to credit those arguments depending on their own cultural type."

At the same time, project members are thinking about how the phenomena they're studying affect the political process. Kahan argues, "Even though [citizens'] main interest is figuring out which political party or candidate or even set of laws will best promote their material interests... in the course of trying to figure that out, they are guided very much by cultural cues. They tend to trust people, believe in the competence of people who share their cultural views."

And these cultural cues pervade nearly every political discussion. Says Braman, "People are very good at sensing the cultural valence of an argument."

While Kahan and Braman focus on cultural differences, they do not see a bitter rift at the root of the culture wars. "Why do we see cultural polarization in politics?" Kahan asks. "Not because we live in a society filled with cultural zealots, but just because we live in a society of people who naturally are inclined to credit the views of people who are like them."

Kahan's suggestion for crafting policies that can create consensus between people with different cultural outlooks is to begin with a solution that is culturally acceptable to as many people as possible. He points out that a consensus that air pollution was a serious problem developed after the solution of tradable emissions--a market-based solution that appealed to individualists otherwise skeptical of environmental regulations--was proposed.

The Cultural Cognition Project's research has shown that many people will not change their opinion on issues like pollution and gun control based on a factual argument alone. Says Kahan, "If you want to promote some kind of consensus around policies that make sense, it's not going to work just to bombard people with factual information.... You need to be just as sophisticated about the social meanings of policies as you do their policy consequences."