Monday, August 08, 2005

How Policy Solutions (Constructively) Beget Problems

Dan Kahan

Most policymakers think linearly: identify a problem, then devise a solution. But a phenomenon known as “cultural cognition” essentially stands this approach on its head. First devise a policy solution, one that affirms all cultural worldviews simultaneously, because it's only then that one can expect persons of diverse cultural persuasions to come to the shared belief that there is a problem worth addressing.

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of persons to conform their view of risks and other policy-relevant facts to their cultural values. People do this, in part, to minimize cognitive dissonance: it’s much more pleasant to believe that what’s morally worthy is also benign, and what’s base dangerous, than vice versa (see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966) on this). People also tend to form factual beliefs that line up with their cultural values because of the culturally partisan foundations of trust. Confronted with competing claims about what activities are dangerous and what policies will abate those dangers, people naturally tend to take the word of those who share their cultural values.

In these circumstances, risk attitudes are likely to be driven by a kind of cultural-identity self-defense mechanism. Because guns are integral to valued social roles within their way of life, for example, relatively hierarchical and individualistic persons (particularly hierarchical and individualistic males) are likely to react skeptically to the idea that weak gun control laws promote crime and result in gun accidents. Egalitarian and solidaristic persons are drawn to the idea that commerce and industry threatens the environment in part because that conclusion justifies regulating activities their values condemn as entrenching inequality and valorizing unconstrained self-interest.

None of this is to deny that there is a truth of the matter about the risks posed (or not posed) by guns, by industrial pollution, and by myriad other activities the dangerousness of which is a point of cultural contention. But the phenomenon of cultural cognition does imply that the simple discovery and dissemination of truth cannot be expected to generate consensus on what societal risks are real and how they should be ameliorated. In order for the truth to be commonly accepted, it must be presented in a form, or under circumstances, that dissipates the threat it poses to certain groups’ cultural identities.

This is the nerve of a brilliant body of research conducted by social psychologist Geoff Cohen and his collaborators. See G. L. Cohen, J. Aronson & C. M. Steele, When beliefs Yield to Evidence: Reducing Biased Evaluation by Affirming the Self, 26 Personality & Social Psych. Bull. 1151 (2000). Cohen et al. show that individuals are much more willing to accept information that threatens a strongly held political value (e.g., opposition to the death penalty or opposition to abortion) shortly after some self-affirming experience -- e.g., doing well on a particular kind of test or being made aware that they possess traits that others respect. The mechanism behind this effect is that such affirmation buffers the threat to self that individuals would otherwise experience as they contemplated revising an opinion that they hold in common with others with whom they share a strong group identity.

There is a political analog of the Cohen self-affirmation effect. It involves affirming the selves of those who might resist information about a societal danger not by timing such information to arrive immediately after a personally affirming experience (that would be a neat trick!) but rather by tying that information to a proposed policy solution that itself affirms the resisters’ cultural values.

For a historical example, consider the softening of conservative opposition to air pollution regulation in the early 1990s. Individualists tend to resist the idea that commerce threatens the environment, because that conclusion would imply that society ought to constrain market behavior and like forms of private ordering. Yet when the idea of tradable emission permits ¾ a market solution to the problem of air pollution -- was devised, the conservative and highly individualist Bush I Administration stopped resisting. Shown a solution that affirmed their cultural values, it became less costly -- in cultural-status-threat terms -- for individualists to accept the idea that there was a problem to be dealt with after all.

For a contemporary example, consider the global warming controversy. Again, individualists -- because they see it as threatening the autonomy of markets -- and hierarchists -- because they see it as impugning the competence of social and governmental elites -- are very skeptical of the idea that global warming is a serious threat. (This is one of the findings of the National Risk & Culture Survey, which I and a number of other scholars conducted.)

But recently, certain groups -- conservative and liberal, it turns out -- have started to tout renewed investment in nuclear power as a way to reduce the fossil fuel greenhouse-gas emissions primarily responsible for global warming. The Cohen self-affirmation effect suggests why this strategy might work. Individualists and hierarchists both support nuclear power, which is emblematic of the very cultural values that are threatened by society’s recognition of the global warming threat. Shown a solution, then, that affirms their identities, individualists and hierarchists can be expected to display less resistance -- not just politically, but cognitively -- to the proposition that global warming is a problem after all.

Indeed, when egalitarians and solidarists are exposed to the such information, they are likely to perceive nuclear power to be less dangerous. The affirmation of their identity associated with the recognition of global warming as a serious threat lowers the cost -- in a cultural status sense -- of accepting information that they have long resisted too.

Will the proposal of “nuclear cooling” generate the same convergence of risk perception about global warming that tradable emissions did on perception of air pollution? Members of the Cultural Cognition Project are currently investigating this and related questions in a set of experiments aimed at identifying the mechanisms of cultural cognition.

But this much is clear already: because culture is cognitively prior to fact, culture must be prior to fact politically as well. To promote sensible democratic responses to risk, policymakers need to be just as sophisticated about the cultural values that laws express as they are about the costs and benefits they impose.


"To promote sensible democratic responses to risk, policymakers need to be just as sophisticated about the cultural values that laws express as they are about the costs and benefits they impose."

Bravo! However, I'd have put that "risk" in quotes, because the perception of risk by policy makers can be just as culturally driven as the perception of costs and benefits by the people they're trying to impose the policy on.

Guns are certainly an excellent example of THAT problem!

Professor Kahan, let's assume you're right that people are more likely to admit the existence of a problem when there's a solution they like. There's a simpler and more cynical explanation for this than you propose: namely, that people are willing to make any argument they think will get them to the policy outcome they want. Admitting the problem might be a political strategy rather than a cognitive breakthrough.

Brett is right and I don't see any way out of the trap -- but better to know that what we are talking about is how to create law that is sensible and compatible w/ diverse cultural values than to assume (as some very prominent members of legal academy do; I won't name names right now) that risk regulation is all about containing or side-stepping irrationality of public or some sector thereof.

AF, I think, is being too cynical. We aren't talking about willingness to engage in quid-pro-quo log roll but about perceptions of risk: give individualists something they want (nuclear power, but a self-affirming exam score might do!), and they will feel less threatened, and thus revise upward their subjective assessment of risk. But the only way to figure this out is to conduct Cohen-like experiments, in which risk perceptions not policy compromises are dependent variable (and, in fact, we have developed and pretested experiments just like that!).


So which problem is this theory a solution to? It will be difficult to sell to a culture that denies the cognitive capacity of those with whom it does not already agree.

Now there's a problem to which I would welcome a solution!

Actually, I think there IS a way out of the trap, it's just not easy, or 100% reliable. Objectivity can be a cultural value, too.

We need to encourage, and enforce, the values of objectivity and transparency among people who do the research which identifies these "risks".

Since cultural values tend to persist if they work, and die out if they don't, I'd say a good start would be reforming the way the judiciary treats expert testimony. The sight of the silicone breast implant litigation grinding on, long after the original claims had been proven false, is both disgusting, and a good reason why bad science is becoming so common: The courts don't really care whether science is good!

Brett, I think the field of evidence (expert and otherwise) is very much ripe for investigation along these lines. I don't mean to deny that there is a truth on something like silicone breast implants but I *do* mean to deny that any sort of norm of objectivite truth-seeking etc. is sufficient to make the law responsive to truth! After all, who *doesn't* believe in such a norm?? The problem is that judges, like ordinary citizens, have to decide which experts to trust -- they can't conduct their own experiments on silicone breast implants! -- and scientists will always disagree; it's in the nature of their business:consider Kuhn's sociology of science, which features the incessant competition btw defenders of dominant and and subversive paradigms, or Popper's theory of scientific knowledge, which says nothing deserves to be known as truth unless it withstands perpetual challenge. So judges, like everyone else, must decide whom to trust. And the experts they will trust are those who share their values. Or at least that is an hypothesis worth exploring. The way out of *that* trap isn't to demand "objectivity" (no one is against that!) but to create conditions in which judges, and citizens, of diverse cultural orientations can both receive the best information w/o perceiving the sort of identity threat that Cohen describes.

As for ged's point -- this again is a problem. What you are getting at is the phenomenon of "naive realism," which refers to the tendency of people (realistically) to perceive that others who disagree with them on controversial facts (like whether the death penalty deters) are motivated to do so by their cutural values while (naively) believing that their own beliefs are free from cultural distortion.
Still, I am optimistic that, if we aren't focusing on any particular issue (say, gun control) we can all agree, in some sort of original positionish way, that we are all, regardless of orientation, prone to this bias and that we should therefore support institutions that will ameliorate the influence of cutural cognitive bias in general.
BTW, everything *I* just said is completely objective and undistored by cultural values.

Dan, I think the real problem with the judiciary in the silicone case wasn't that they don't believe in a norm of objectivity, but rather that they don't regard factual accuracy as being all that important, so long as you've jumped through the hoops in the right order. A juror is bought and paid for, mistrial. An expert's testimony turns out to have been false, aw, that's too bad.

Professor Kahan, if we're applying this theory to politics, the dependent variable of interest is always going to be policy outcomes. The salient question isn't whether policy solutions change perceptions, but whether those changed perceptions lead people to support policies they wouldn't otherwise support.

So the story you've told so far doesn't really interest me from a political point of view. Once you've come up with a policy that "affirms all cultural worldviews simultaneously" and therefore is acceptable to everybody, that's your policy outcome. End of story. It doesn't matter whether perceptions change or not.

Unless you are imagining the following scenario: At time A, there is widespread disagreement. At time B, a policy solution that "affirms all cultural worldviews" is proposed. At time C, people who previously didn't perceive the problem recognize it and support the policy which is therefore adopted. Then, at time D, these people will support policies that do NOT affirm their cultural worldviews because they now see there's a problem.

That last step is crucial for the theory to be politically meaningful, because presumably the universally-affirming policy proposed at time B would have been adopted regardless of whether anyone changed their perception. But it's not clear to me the last step will happen. Isn't possible that once confronted with a policy solution they don't like individuals will revise their risk assessments back down to where they were before?

How is the SCOTUS decision in Daubert concerning scientific expertise working out? Should it be expanded to include non-scientific expert witnesses? When I started practicing just over 50 years ago, I believed that a trial was a search for the truth. It didn't take long for me to learn that the trial found truth only from what was presented to it and even then there was a great deal of subjectivity. If one had the funds, an expert could be found to support a party's position in a trial, which the other side could counter with its own expert(s). Keep in mind that the trial is conducted by attorneys required to do their best in support of their clients' positions and controlled by a judge (with the assistance sometimes of a jury), with a great degree of transparency (except for the jury's deliberations). But the truth that emerges from the trial is not a universal truth. Yes, the system seems to work much of the time. Yes, we are a government of laws and not of men/women. But men/women are critically involved in applying the laws. We do the best we can with what we got. As for the political process, it is even more subjective what with long range planning of politicians being limited to their next election. Perhaps life is best described as a game of horseshoes: close enough counts.

Cultural intelligence seems like a good thing to cultivate whether you are trying to cultivate social capital, persuade someone to look at some body of evidence, or graner support for a policy solution.

shorn of the redescription in terms of reified notions like 'status' and 'culture' what this means is that propaganda matters. it should not be surprising to discover that truth doesn't always win out. what is surprising is that this essay seems, in a technocratically euphemized way, to be celebrating propaganda as a legitimate policy tool.

on a specific level, i wonder why 'individualists' are presented as synonymous with free marketeers? also, is it really a better explanation of the acceptance -- itself quite limited -- of pollution permits by conservatives as explainable as avoiding loss of status; or does it make more sense to explain their acceptance as seeing that such a scheme is more 'efficient' economically [in theory]?

the approach posits democratic consensus building as a valuable goal, and suggests that the nuclear power solution is or would be a success. [rather dubious once the untold consequence this may pose in an era of nuclear dissemination -- i.e. what about the hypocrisy effect on the international of the u.s. complaining about Iranian nukes at the same time as it plans more nuke power?] but what if the compromise between leftand right produces a solution that isn't good enough? the environmnt is a matter of fact not 'cultural values' and it may be true that the moderate solution to its pollution is inadequate to save civilization in the long run. why not seek to delegitimate completely the complacent right rather than to 'pluralistically' embrace them?

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