Monday, August 22, 2005

What Fearless White Men Are Afraid of

Dan Kahan

Why are white men less concerned with all manner of risk (global warming, gun accidents, various medical procedures, etc.) than are women and minorities? Known as the “white male effect” (see, e.g., Melissa Finucane, Paul Slovic, C.K. Mertz, James Flynn & Theresa A. Satterfield, Gender, Race, and Perceived Risk: The "White Male" Effect, 3 Health, Risk, & Soc'y 159 (2000)), this phenomenon has long puzzled scholars of risk perception. Various hypotheses -- that white men are more informed than women and minorities, that women and minorities feel more vulnerable or less able to protect themselves, that women (and perhaps minorities) are more empathetic than white men -- have all been found wanting in empirical tests.

The phenomenon of “cultural cognition” suggests a different explanation, one that has been confirmed in a national study of culture and risk. The reason white males are less fearful of various risks is that they are more afraid of something else: namely, the loss of status they experience when activities symbolic of their cultural worldviews are stigmatized as socially undesirable.

Cultural cognition refers to the processes by which cultural worldviews influence risk perception and related beliefs. Insofar as risk perceptions are responsive to emotions (and boy, are they ever), cultural values matter because they determine the content and strength of the emotions people experience toward putatively dangerous activities. Insofar as perceptions of risk depend on the information we receive, cultural values matter because they influence what information catches our attention and is thereafter recalled. And insofar as risk perceptions reflect what other citizens have to say, cultural values matter because we tend to trust the opinions of those who share our worldviews and distrust the opinions of those who don’t.

As a result of these dynamics, disputes over how to respond to nuclear power, guns, domestic terrorism and various other asserted risks can be understood to reflect what Joseph Gusfield describes as symbolic status competition. Because differences of opinion on these matters cohere with the worldviews of competing cultural groups, what position the law takes will inevitably come to be understood as a measure of whose stock is up and whose down in the market for societal esteem. In particular, to the extent that some activity symbolic of the values of a particular group is attacked as dangerous, we can expect members of that group to display a defensive form of risk skepticism and members of opposing groups to display an aggressive form of risk sensitivity.

Status-protective motivations help to explain not only differences in risk perception across cultural groups but also certain demographic differences within such groups. Within different ways of life (hierarchical, individualistic, egalitarian, and communitarian), the types of behavior that entitle persons to esteem can vary according to gender and even race. It follows that within particular cultural groups, men and women, and whites and minorities, will react with different degrees of risk skepticism and risk sensitivity depending on whose status the dangerous activity supports.

This dynamic, I and other researchers have found, accounts for the so-called “white male effect” in risk perception. Firearm possession, for example, is integral to predominantly male roles (father, protector, hunter) within a hierarchic way of life and symbolic of predominantly male virtues (courage, honor, physical prowess) within an individualistic way of life. For that reason, hierarchical and individualistic males have the most culturally grounded status to lose when guns are singled out as a source of danger worthy of regulation. They therefore display considerably more risk skepticism than do hierarchical and individualistic women. Indeed, once this culture-specific gender differential is taken into account, it turns out there is no general differences in the risk perceptions of men and women toward guns.

Culture-specific status concerns also explain the impact of race on gun risk perceptions. Traditionally at least, the positive connotations that guns bear within a hierarchic way of life have been largely specific to whites. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, “in the historic system of the South, having a gun was a white prerogative,” making gun ownership an enduring “symbol of white male status” in particular. Not surprisingly, holding a hierarchical worldview strongly predicts gun-risk skepticism among white males, but not among African-American ones.

Within an individualistic way of life, however, the positive association of guns with male roles doesn’t seem particularly race specific. And in fact, among individualistic blacks, as among individualistic whites, men are much more skeptical of guns than are women. In this case, at least, male status anxieties don’t discriminate on the basis of race!

We found a similar relationship between the cultural status anxiety and the white male effect in environmental risk perceptions. To begin with, there are no differences in risk perception across race once cultural worldviews are controlled for. Gender differences do persist. But they are due entirely to the the wide discrepancy in the views of extremely risk-skeptical white hierarchical males and considerably less risk-skeptical hierarchical women. There are no gender (or race) based differences in environmental risk perception among relatively individualistic or egalitarian persons.

Again, these patterns suggest the impact of culture-specific gender differences in status-conferring social roles. Within a hierarchic way of life, men tend to earn esteem by achieving success in civil society, while women earn it by successfully occupying domestic roles. Accordingly, it is hierarchic men, not hierarchic women, who experience the greatest status threat when commercial and industrial activities are challenged as dangerous. Within an individualist way of life, success in the market is status-conferring for men and women. Accordingly, individualistic men and individualistic women react with status-protecting skepticism when commerce and industry are attacked as dangerous. Commerce and industry are symbolic of social inequality and unconstrained individualism within egalitarian and communitarian ways of life. Accordingly, as a means of promoting their status, men and women alike within these cultural groups tend to embrace claims of environmental risk.

As should be clear, it would be wrong to suggest that white hierarchical or individualistic men are the only ones whose risk perceptions are shaped by status anxieties. Indeed, we found that status concerns also help to explain interesting variations in risk perception among women relating to the dangers of obtaining an abortion. Hierarchical women but not individualistic or egalitarian ones perceive obtaining an abortion to be very dangerous to a woman’s health. Sociologist Kristin Luker depicts abortion as the symbolic focal point in a status conflict between two groups of women: those who subscribe to hierarchical norms that confer esteem upon women who occupy domestic roles such as motherhood; and those who adhere to individualistic and egalitarian norms that confer esteem upon women and men alike for successfully occupying professional roles. It is thus status protective for the former group of women to accept the asserted health risks of abortion and for the latter to reject these asserted risks.

What is the practical upshot of the relationship between cultural status anxiety and risk perception? It certainly isn’t that white males (or hierarchal and individualistic white males) are “wrong” and everyone else “right” about global warming, guns, etc. -- or vice versa. Knowing the social psychological origins of some groups’ views about risk doesn’t tell us anything about whether those views are sound or unsound!

But knowing that peoples’ risk perceptions are rooted in cultural cognition does tell us something important about the prospects for communication of sound risk information. It probably doesn’t make sense, in particular, to assume that the “truth” will win out in the market place of ideas when it comes to political debates over risk. The natural tendency of persons (all persons, of all worldviews and demographic characteristics) to protect the status of their cultural group operates as a distorting influence on in the public’s processing of sound information.

Overcoming this biasing effect of cultural cognition should thus be a critical objective of policymakers and -analysts. Not merely the tone of our public discourse, but the safety or our society, depends on devising a culturally pluralistic idiom for discussing contentious issues like global warming, guns, and other contentious risk issues.


But surely the biasing effect of cultural cognition could only be overcome by people whose cognition was not culturally conditioned. When you find some people like that, give me a call. (I suspect that you think that academic researchers fall into that category: think again.)

You know, you say that it's not necessarilly the "white males" whose perception of risk is wrong, but your every other statement belies that disclaimer.

Strikes me that talking about the "white male effect" is just another way of avoiding having truth win out in the marketplace of ideals, by engaging in diagnosis instead of looking for objective risk data.

Finally, it's not just safety at stake, but also liberty. To discount the latter is to systematically advantage cultures which don't exercise certain liberties, over those that are exercising them.

Which statements, Brett, bely the claim? I honestly believe the political implications of cultural cognition are pretty much a wash. Maybe someone could read what I've written and nod approvingly at the idea that skepticism of white hierarchal and individualist males toward, say, global warming is a product of cultural bias. But then those same readers, if they are egalitarian or communitarian proponents of gun control, say, ought to wonder whether their own perception of gun risks is a product of their cultural bias.

The ubiquity of culturally driven perceptions of risk makes your point about liberty all the more compelling. The phenomenon of cultural cognition makes it easy for people to delude themselves into thinking they are protecting society from danger when they are really motivated by abhorrence for the values expressed by actions they want to regulate (whether owning a gun, engaging in same-sex behavior, or smoking marijuana).

Well, let's start with nomenclature: If it's not the "white males" who are wrong, why is it the "white males effect", and not the "black women effect"? To be objective, we'd have to compare perceptions of risk to objective data, in order to determine which groups were actually being effected by this cultural cognition.

Researchers use the term "white male effect" rather than "black female effect" because black women aren't different from everyone else. If you just parse things out demographically, black women, white women, and black men are comparable in their attitudes.
Of course, the nerve of our research is to show there is *no* "white male effect" -- being white and male doesn't matter unless one is also hierarchic or individualistic, and even then, differences in perception vary across risk.
Another thing: Nothing in our research suggests that only one group is experiencing cultural cognition. Certainly it isn't the case that those who form accurate risk perceptions have formed their views independently of cultural cognition. They are just lucky, really, that their cultural values happened to have made their views line up with the truth (on some issue but almost certainly not on many others).
If there's any hint of cultural or political partisanship in my post -- there might well be; I have values, of course -- then I hope these responses clarify that "cultural cognition" doesn't advance *any* groups' position relative to any other's.

Yes, I think you've clarified it adequately.

However... I don't think we really want to say that people whose perceptions of risk happen to agree with objective facts were just lucky that their perceptions, dictated by culture, purely coincidentally agreed with the facts. Rather than saying, "How did that happen, and how can we encourage it to happpen more often?"

After all, if cultural cognition were as all determining as that, the proper response to your research would be to dismiss any claim it might have to being valid, and analyse it as evidence of YOUR cultural predispositions. People CAN be objective. It's not fun, it's not easy, but it can be done. Or eles all science, including social science, is futile.

I suppose the reason for my initial reaction was that I have far too often seen people advance reasoned arguments, and seen those arguments treated as symptoms to diagnose instead of being responded to on the level of evidence and reason. And it happens most of all in some of the contentious topics you mentioned.

I agree entirely. I overstated the point about coincidental convergence of cultural cognition and true belief. Indeed, the whole point is, as you suggest, to figure out what sorts of conditions systematically promote acceptance of sound empirical information by persons of diverse cultural orientations.

Many thanks, I'll definitely take a look at those! In the same spirit -- more nuanced accounts of guns & cultural values -- there's a wonderful recent ethnographic work, Abigail Kohn, Shooters: Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures (Cambridge UP 2004). You might well have already seen it, but if not I highly recommend it.

This reminds me of every debate on religion and public life. As with fundamentalists, strict construction-original intentists let's ignore Brett's logic, which isn't logical and understand his fears, which are.

Sean is right. No one is beyond cultural conditioning, including Steven Weinberg and that pompous ass Brad DeLong (yes there is a connection).

What annoys me about this post is not the logic per se, but my fear that the attempt to understand behavior from a vantage point seemingly outside itself encourages a philosophy and a public policy of passive aggressive manipulation for the greater good. Instead of reference to the various gods, we hear: "Science made me do it"
Lets be blunt, the only reason for scientific research into the obvious- read Euripides, Montaigne or Shakespeare- is for the purpose of making policy decisions that are seen as objective and neutral. But they aren't objective and neutral, and to the extent that they are they are shallow and pointless.

Call me old fashioned but I separate law and morality. I don't defend the market, or the idea of the market, as a result of some pseudo-scientfiic faith in its internal fiscal and moral stability. I don't like greed. I don't think of it as moral; it has some useful side effects and it won't go away. But if it can't be eliminated, any more than individualism itself [Stalinism sucks-badly!] a supposedly authorless technocracy is both morally and intellectually sterile, and you don't have to be a born again Wahhabi to see why. I'm a second generation atheist, and I'm disgusted by the contempt for born again christianity not because I give a damn about religion, but because the people who exhibit such contempt are so worthy of it themselves. Science does not can not understand aporias, but people are both logical and not, rational and not. Greed is both destructive and creative; and given a choice between Brett's cynical conservatism and the anti-intellectual can-do mediocrity of technocratic liberalism I'll choose Voltaire.

If you want to understand the fears of others, prove to them you understand your own.

I think of Michael Moore as an example of cultural cognition at work. There is no prospect that the information he presents in his documentaries (consider Bowling for Columbine's critique of guns) will change the mind of anyone of a hierarchical or individualistic cultural identity because the way in which he presents his information radiates hostility to the worldviews of those persons.

"There is no prospect that the information he presents in his documentaries (consider Bowling for Columbine's critique of guns) will change the mind of anyone of a hierarchical or individualistic cultural identity because the way in which he presents his information radiates hostility to the worldviews of those persons."

Wrong audience. Moore affects the manner of a prosecutor not a scientist, and rather than feigning objectivity he acknowledges bias, presenting himself as someone as human to the public that makes up a jury of his peers.

Scientists who can't imagine themselves as performers will fail as communicators.
And philosophers of law never seem to understand lawyers.

Richard, I agree that the payoff of this work, if there is to be any, will have to come in the form of insights on how to frame information and arguments in a manner that makes persons of diverse cultural worldviews able to converge on empirically sound policies that promote common welfare. A strategy for doing this was actually the subject of an earlier contribution I made to this site -- How Policy Solutions (Constructively) Beget Problems. Very much a non-Michael Moore approach and agenda, I suppose. Don Braman and I have also written a paper specifically on this issue & guns, entitled Overcoming the Fear of Cultural Politics: Constructing a Better Gun Debate. You can download it (as well as our paper on culture & the white male effect; although maybe you already have read that) at

Thank you for this post and the link to the PDF that I will carefully read and write about. This is relevant, and this is background and here is more.

I didn't see the connection beween my post and penis enlagment until now--thanks!!!

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