The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

Motivated Ignorance

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 20, 2011

From EENews:

For many people, ignorance is bliss when it comes to vexing issues like climate change, according to a new study.

Published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the report shows that people who know very little about an issue — say the economic downturn, changes in the climate or dwindling fossil fuel reserves — tend to avoid learning more about it. This insulates them in their ignorance — a pattern described by researchers as “motivated avoidance.”

Faced with complicated or troubling situations, these people often defer to authorities like the government or scientists, hoping they have the situation under control.

“Our research suggests that this kind of overwhelmed feeling, and feeling that an issue is ‘above one’s head’ leads people to feel dependent on the government, and this dependence is managed by trusting the government more to deal with an issue, and this is managed by avoiding the issue,” explained Steven Shepherd, a social psychology doctoral student at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an author of the report, in an email.

“This is psychologically easier than taking a significant amount of time to learn about an issue, all the while confronting unpleasant information about it,” he added.

The report used survey data from 511 participants between 2010 and 2011. “In four studies we manipulated how we framed a domain like the economy or energy (e.g., simple or complex), and in the one study, we manipulated whether or not a future oil shortage was said to be an immediate problem, or a distant future problem,” Shepherd said.

The researchers found that people who received complex information on an issue felt more helpless and more trusting in government compared to those who received relatively simple explanations. In addition, people who felt ignorant on a certain topic — especially issues with dire consequences like fuel shortages or climate change — would reject negative information.

But researchers say there’s more to it than just plugging your ears and saying “la la la.”

The trust-and-avoid ploy

Motivated avoidance stems from a phenomenon known as system justification. “It refers to a motivation that most people hold to believe that the systems that they function with are legitimate,” explained [Situationist Contributor] Aaron Kay, another author. Kay, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, explained that people working within a government agency or large institution can’t really influence the collective group on their own.

So they are inclined to conclude the group largely knows what it’s doing. “It doesn’t always imply that people think this is good, but they think it’s better than the government not being in control,” he said. To maintain this view, he noted, people will deliberately avoid information that contradicts it.

“Climate change is a global issue that, seemingly, is beyond the efforts of any one individual. … I think a lot of people feel unable to do anything about it,” said Shepherd. “The next best thing is to either deny it, or defer the issue to governments to deal with it. … In our research we find that one easy way to maintain that psychologically comforting trust that an issue is being dealt with is to simply avoid the issue.”

The authors also speculate that political leanings play into whether people want to trust politicians handle climate change. “I think we see this in the recent ‘Occupy’ movements, and among those pushing for governments to do more about climate change,” Shepherd said.

“People who simply distrust the government to begin with, or libertarians who prefer to have as little government involvement in their lives as possible, are also unlikely to respond to feeling dependent on the government by trusting in them more.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Environment, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2011

Situationist friend, Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, describes the psychological impulses that make it difficult for humans to confront the threat of global warming.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Environment, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Warming World or Just World?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 27, 2010

From UCBerkeley News:

Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming,” said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study to be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it,” agreed Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology and coauthor of the study.

But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways, and present solutions to global warming, Willer said, most people can get past their skepticism.

Recent decades have seen a growing scientific consensus on the existence of a warming of global land and ocean temperatures. A significant part of the warming trend has been attributed to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the mounting evidence, a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated, and 19 percent think global warming will never happen. In 1997, 31 percent of those who were asked the same question in a Gallup poll felt the claims were overstated.

In light of this contradictory trend, Feinberg and Willer sought to investigate the psychology behind attitudes about climate change.

In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a “just world scale,” which measures people’s belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as “I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice.”

Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.

In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one’s belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.

They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as “prevails justice always” so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.

Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

Overall, the study concludes, “Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Value-Affirmation, and the Situation of Climate Change Beliefs,” Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification,’” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Abstracts, Environment, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Value-Affirmation, and the Situation of Climate Change Beliefs

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2010

On NPR’s All Things Considered, Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan and Donald Braman were interviewed this week by Christopher Joyce regarding their important work on cultural cognition.  Here is an excerpt.

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Over the past few months, polls show that fewer Americans say they believe humans are making the planet dangerously warmer, and that is despite a raft of scientific reports that say otherwise. And that puzzles many climate scientists, but not social scientists.

As NPR’s Christopher Joyce reports, some of their research suggests that when people encounter new information, facts may not be as important as beliefs.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The divide between climate believers and disbelievers can be as wide as a West Virginia valley, and that’s where two of them squared off recently at a public debate on West Virginia Public Radio.

Coal company president Don Blankenship is a doubter.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy Company): It’s a hoax because clearly anyone that says that they know what the temperature of the earth is going to be in 2020 or 2030 needs to be put in an asylum because they don’t.

JOYCE: On the other side, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr.

Mr. ROBERT KENNEDY JR. (Environmentalist): Ninety-eight percent of the research, climatologists in the world say that global warming is real, that its impacts are going to be catastrophic. There are 2 percent who disagree with that. I have a choice of believing the 98 percent or the 2 percent.

JOYCE: For social scientist and lawyer Don Braman, it’s not surprising that two people can disagree so strongly over science. Braman is on the faculty at George Washington University and a part of a research group called Cultural Cognition.

Professor DON BRAMAN (George Washington University Law School/The Cultural Cognition Project): People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their worldview.

JOYCE: Braman’s group has conducted several experiments to back that up. First, they ask people to describe their cultural beliefs. Some embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise – the so-called individualistic group. Others are suspicious of authority, or of commerce and industry. Braman calls them communitarians.

In one experiment, Braman then queried his subjects about something unfamiliar: nanotechnology, new research into tiny, molecule-sized objects that could lead to novel products.

Prof. BRAMAN: These two groups start to polarize as soon as you start to describe some of the potential benefits and harms.

JOYCE: The individualists tended to like nanotechnology; the communitarians generally viewed it as dangerous – all based on the same information.

Prof. BRAMAN: It doesn’t matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom on to the positive information.

JOYCE: So what’s going on here?

Professor DAN KAHAN (Yale University Law School/The Cultural Cognition Project): Basically, the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values.

JOYCE: That’s Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of Cultural Cognition. He says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work.

Prof. KAHAN: If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way.

JOYCE: And if the information doesn’t, you tend to reject it.

In another experiment, people read a United Nations’ study about the dangers of global warming. Then the researchers said, okay, the solution is to regulate pollution from industry. Many in the individualistic group then rejected the climate science. But when more nuclear power was offered as the solution…

Prof. BRAMAN: They said, you know, it turns out global warming is a serious problem.

JOYCE: And for the communitarians, climate danger seemed less serious if the only solution was more nuclear power.

Then there’s the Messenger Effect. In an experiment dealing with the dangers versus benefits of a vaccine, the scientific information came from several people. They ranged from a rumpled and bearded expert to a crisply business-like one. And people tended to believe the message that came from the person they considered to be more like them – which brings us back to climate.

Prof. BRAMAN: If you have people who are skeptical of the data on climate change, you can bet that Al Gore is not going to convince them at this point.

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You can listen to, or read the rest of, the interview here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts related to cultural cognition, see The Situation of Scientific Consensus,” Dan Kahan on the Situation of Risk Perceptions,” Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk.” For still more  Situationist posts discussing cultural cognition, click here.

For more Situationst posts on perceptions of climate change, see Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Ideology, Legal Theory, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2009

From Pop!Tech and YouTube, here is Situationist friend, Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert speaking  about the psychology of global warming.

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For related Sitautionist posts, see “Jeffrey Sachs on the Situation of Global Poverty,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Geography, History, Illusions, Law, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

John Jost on Political Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 15, 2008

jostHere is an excellent interview of Situationist contributor John Jost by an intern from the Breakthrough Institute.

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Why is the study of political psychology important?

At its best, political psychology has the potential to improve, on the basis of reason and evidence, our political institutions and public policies so that they are more congruent with what we know about human behavior.  Social and political psychologists have, over the decades, offered sophisticated analyses and practical interventions with regard to stereotyping, prejudice, authoritarianism, sexism, aggression, nationalism, terrorism, war, and conflict resolution.  [See Political Psychology book here.]

You conclude that fear motivates conservatism, but does this mean progressives should avoid fear-based appeals entirely? What about when dealing with genuinely scary things like terrorism and global warming?

For decades social psychologists have known that fear-based appeals in and of themselves are unhelpful and counterproductive, because they lead people either to deny problems that are too painful to face or to simply feel helpless and incapacitated.  I think that we see both of these responses to the threat of global warming all the time.  So, if you use a fear-based appeal you must simultaneously provide people with a clear, constructive solution to the problem.

In general, conservatives are much better than progressives at doing that, maybe because progressives tend to get bogged down in a complex, overly nuanced analysis of the problem.  “We’ll kill all the terrorists,” may be an unrealistic goal (even setting aside the question of whether it’s a desirable goal), but it does assuage the fear, at least temporarily, in clear and unambiguous terms.  Even with regard to global warming, conservatives (when they admit the problem) state simply that, “The market will fix it.”  That’s simple and makes people feel better in the short run, even if it turns out to be false.  Progressives who use fear-based appeals need to get better at communicating a clear (and reassuring) solution whenever the threat is made salient.  Otherwise, I think that it will backfire.

What are some examples of the ways progressives have dealt with fear effectively?

I think that in the U.S. context, the best historical example is probably Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously declared in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  This statement reframes the whole question of what the real threat is, highlighting the fact that fear can be a truly destructive political force, and that it can erode democratic systems from within, as Roosevelt was about to see with respect to Europe.

But Roosevelt did not stop at the level of rhetoric.  He proceeded to roll out dozens of specific social and economic programs that were clearly designed to address the economic fears of the citizenry.  For the most part he presented these solutions in clear, confident, certain terms.  The solutions he proposed were unabashedly liberal, and he explained why they were good solutions for the problems that faced the nation.  In other words, he promised to solve the problems and, in many ways, he did.

What kind of response does your work get from conservatives?

Conservatives are typically more bothered by oversimplified (mis)representations that sometimes spread through the media (especially the blogosphere), than by the actual details of our research.  Once they learn about it, conservatives are prone to concede that there are personality and/or cognitive style differences between liberals and conservatives.  There is obviously a difference between saying that conservatives score higher (on average) than liberals on personal needs for order or structure and saying that conservatives are stupid or crazy, but some people can’t (or, more likely, don’t want to) grasp the difference.

There are several ironies concerning the most hostile responses, though.  Some people send hate mail that tends to confirm the worst, most authoritarian picture one could have of extreme conservatives.  They are hardly helping their cause, it seems to me.  Other negative responses in the blogosphere run the gamut from “ho hum,” “this is obvious,” and “we already knew this” to “this is outrageous” and “what bullshit.”  Well, it can’t be both trivially true and spectacularly false.  We need to conduct research in psychology because everyone thinks they know what really drives their own behavior (and that of others) and also because nearly everything about psychology sounds obvious once you know it to be true.

One might conclude from your study that conservatism is almost an aberrant behavior — a coping mechanism of sorts. Was this your intention?

No, I think that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of psychology as a discipline; people assume that if psychologists are studying it, then it must be pathological in some way.  In fact the opposite is probably closer to the truth in this case.  Conservatism is intuitive, ordinary, commonplace, and probably has natural psychological advantages over liberalism.  It makes a great deal of sense that when people feel threatened they would stick to what is familiar and known, that is, the status quo.  All of us, even progressives, want to feel good about most of the customs, traditions, and institutions that surround us, and it can be a painful, disillusioning process when we feel disappointed in our country, its leaders, and its institutions.

To use one of the terms that is central to our research program, I think that everyone is motivated—at least to some degree—to engage in “system justification.”  In this respect, I think that liberals and progressives are probably at a disadvantage.  The notion that we should tolerate and respect people who are different from us and that we should offer equal protection even to those who reject or flout traditional norms is somewhat counterintuitive, in a psychological sense.  In the context of human history as a whole, this liberal, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarian view is newer and far more of an “aberration.”  As a philosophical belief system or a cultural innovation, it could be considered an accomplishment of our species, insofar as it was unlikely to catch on given our evolutionary background.

You posit that “resistance to change” and “acceptance of inequality” are the core dimensions of conservative thought. What are the core dimensions of liberal and progressive thought?

Actually, what we say is that at the core of the left-right (or liberal-conservative) distinction there are two basic values or polar orientations: (1) advocating vs. resisting social change, and (2) rejecting vs. accepting social and economic inequality.  These two aspects tend to be correlated because traditional social arrangements were hierarchical and authority-based, and over the last several centuries most of the challenges to the status quo have been in the direction of increased rather than decreased egalitarianism.  Thus, as a general rule, leftists are more in favor of social change and egalitarianism (with respect to outcomes as well as opportunities), whereas rightists are more in favor of tradition and more supportive of hierarchical social systems.

9781841690704What do you think are the best practical applications of your research?

One of my former doctoral students, Hulda Thorisdottir, conducted what is probably the best applied test of our ideas in her dissertation work.  She conducted several experiments in which she demonstrated that threatening stimuli (such as frightening movie clips) elicit a temporary increase in closed-mindedness (measured with a subset of items from the “need for cognitive closure” scale) and that increased closed-mindedness was associated with an affinity for conservative policies and opinions.  She also showed that threat can increase approval of liberal policies, but only when those policies are communicated using certainty-oriented language.  That is, liberal opinions must be offered as confident, unambiguously good solutions that will definitely solve the basic problem.  Otherwise, they are dismissed under conditions of threat.

What do you think of the current economic panic in this country? Alan Greenspan recently observed that the current economic mess is “the most wrenching” since World War II; Fortune magazine’s Allan Sloan, who’s been covering the business of business for decades says, “I’m more nervous about the world financial system than I’ve ever been in 40 years.”

Yes, I do think that there are serious economic concerns looming, and the yawning gap between rich and poor has created an opportunity for the country to make an economic left turn.  The Democratic candidate for president should make a note to himself (or herself), just as Bill Clinton did in 1992, that says, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  But I do not think that panic helps progressives, as I said before, because fear inhibits the desire to experiment with bold, new initiatives, and that is the essence of progressive thinking.  Progressives in the 21st century need to be as bold and creative as their predecessors in the last century who made the U.S. a moral leader on the world stage and not just a military and industrial leader.  More than ever, progressives need to offer clear, courageous, and scientifically compelling solutions to the many problems that confront us.  The solutions they propose should be realistic and congruent with what we know about the causes of human behavior; that is, they should be informed by political psychology.

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For related Situationist posts, click here.

Posted in History, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Situation of Risk Perceptions – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2008

Gregory Mandel, Donald Braman, and Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan recently posted their paper, “Cultural Cognition and Synthetic Biology Risk Perceptions: A Preliminary Analysis,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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We describe the results of a study to determine the synthetic-biology risk perceptions of a large and diverse sample of Americans (N = 1,500). The survey found that hierarchical, conservative, and highly religious individuals – one who normally are skeptical of claims of environmental risks (including those relating to global warming) – are the most concerned about synthetic biology risks. We offer an interpretation that identifies how selective risk-skepticism and risk-sensitivity can convey a cultural commitment to traditional forms of authority.

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Ideology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Al Gore’s Situationism and Call for Urgency

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 28, 2008

For a related post, see “Al Gore – The Situationist.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Education, Geography, Politics, Public Policy, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Second National Risk and Culture Study – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2008

Global Warming Image from by Buou - Flickr

Situationist contributor Dan Kahan, Donald Braman, Situationist contributor Paul Slovic, John Gastil, and Geoffrey Cohen posted their paper, “The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – The American Culture War of Fact” on SSRN. We’ve pasted the abstract below.

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Cultural Cognition refers to the disposition to conform one’s beliefs about societal risks to one’s preferences for how society should be organized. Based on surveys and experiments involving some 5,000 Americans, the Second National Risk and Culture Study presents empirical evidence of the effect of this dynamic in generating conflict about global warming, school shootings, domestic terrorism, nanotechnology, and the mandatory vaccination of school-age girls against HPV, among other issues. The Study also presents evidence of risk-communication strategies that counteract cultural cognition. Because nuclear power affirms rather than threatens the identity of persons who hold individualist values, for example, proposing it as a solution to global warming makes persons who hold such values more willing to consider evidence that climate change is a serious risk. Because people tend to impute credibility to people who share their values, persons who hold hierarchical and egalitarian values are less likely to polarize when they observe people who hold their values advocating unexpected positions on the vaccination of young girls against HPV. Such techniques can help society to create a deliberative climate in which citizens converge on policies that are both instrumentally sound and expressively congenial to persons of diverse values.

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For related posts, click on the “Cultural Cognition” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Ideology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green

Posted by Dan Kahan on March 7, 2008

[This post was first published in October. It is being re-published this week because of its relevance to this Saturday’s conference at Harvard Law School, hosted by the Project on Law & Mind Sciences (for details, go to the conference webpage here).]

expressively overdetermined flag!

A while back I posted an entry about the “cultural cognition of nanotechnology risks.” The entry described a study that members of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School had done that showed that exposure to just a small bit of information about nanotechnology — a subject the vast majority of Americans have heard nothing or little about — can instantly polarize people along cultural lines. I promised that I would post another entry describing techniques for ameliorating this type of cultural polarization on risk issues.

Well, I waited about 6 months or so, not just to let suspense build but also to gather some data so that it wouldn’t seem I was just engaged in wild-eyed conjecture (although truth be told, I’m pretty partial to that mode of exposition). Now I’m going to describe a framing technique for reducing cultural polarization that involves identity affirmation (a communication strategy based on the work of social psychologist and Cultural Cognition Project researcher Geoff Cohen). And I’m going to illustrate how it works with a study that relates to global warming.

Let me start with just a little bit of background. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the psychological disposition of people to form beliefs about risk that cohere with their values. People who hold relatively egalitarian and communitarian values, for example, worry about environmental risks (nuclear power accidents, global warming, air pollution, etc.), the abatement of which would justify regulating commercial activities that generate inequality and legitimize the unconstrained pursuit of individual self-interest. Persons who subscribe to relatively individualistic values, in contrast, reject claims of environmental risk precisely because they cherish markets and private orderings. They worry instead that excessive gun control will render individuals unable to defend themselves — a belief congenial to the association of guns with individualist virtues such as self-reliance, courage, and martial prowess. Persons who hold traditional or hierarchical values fret about the societal risks of drug use and promiscuous sex, and the personal risks associated with obtaining an abortion or smoking marijuana — forms of behavior that denigrate traditional social norms and roles.

One of the basic mechanisms behind the cultural cognition of risk is identity-protective cognition. As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.

This process, though, can presumably be reversed or at least mitigated. If one can frame risk information in way that affirms rather than threatens persons’ defining commitments, then those persons should be able to process information more open-mindedly.

We (Don Braman, Situationist Contributor Paul Slovic, Geoff Cohen, John Gastil and I) decided to test this hypothesis in an experiment focusing on global warming. People with individualistic values tend to be skeptical of environmental risks like global warming because accepting such risks seems to imply that government should regulate commerce, an activity individualists like. But it turns out that one possible solution to global warming is to rely more on nuclear power, which doesn’t emit the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel energy sources. Cultural individualists like nuclear power, because it is a symbol of individual initiative, industry, and mastery over nature. Advised that nuclear power is one solution to the risks of global warming, then, individualists should be more receptive to information suggesting that global warming in fact presents genuine and serious risks.

nuke_vs_antipollution.pngIn our experiment, we divided subjects (whose cultural values we measured ahead of time with appropriate scales) into two groups. Both received a news report describing a scientific study on global warming. The study was described as finding conclusive evidence that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth’s climate could have disastrous environmental economic consequences. In one version of the news story, however, the scientific study was described as calling for “increased antipollution regulation,” whereas in another it was described as calling for “revitalization of the nation’s nuclear power industry.”

The results of the experiment showed that subjects receiving the “nuclear power” version of the news story were less culturally polarized than ones receiving the “anti-pollution” version. That is, individualists who received the “nuclear power” version were less inclined to dismiss the facts related by the described report — that the earth’s temperature is increasing, that humans are the cause, and that the consequences would be dire if global warming were not reversed — than were individualists who got the “antipollution” version, even though the factual information, and its source, were the same in both articles. Indeed, individualists who received the “antipollution” version of the news report were even more skeptical about these facts than were individualists in a control group that received no newspaper story — and thus no information relating to the scientific study that made these findings.individualists_polarization.png

In sum, anti-pollution measures make individualists see red. Nuclear power makes them see green!

This is just one of a variety of experimental findings that appear in a report, “The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of — and Progress in — the American Culture War of Fact,” released last week by the Cultural Cognition Project. The study discusses a variety of issues in addition to global warming, including domestic terrorism, school shootings, and vaccination of school-age girls for HPV. It also identifies other mechanisms for counteracting the divisive effects of cultural cognition on these and other issues. I’ll discuss some of these findings too in future posts – ones that will appear, I promise, in less than six months’ time.

But before I conclude this post, I do want to make one thing clear. The point of “identity affirmation” and like techniques for counteracting cultural cognition is not to induce people to believe any particular set of facts about climate change, gun control, anti-terrorism policies, or the like. Rather it’s to neutralize the tendency of people to polarize along cultural lines as they consider and discuss information about such matters. If society availed itself of risk-communication and regulatory strategies founded on “identity affirmation” and similar mechanisms, disagreements about facts would no doubt persist, but they would no longer take the form of battles between rival cultural factions. And we think that’s a good thing.

Posted in Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Ideology, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green

Posted by Dan Kahan on October 2, 2007

expressively overdetermined flag!A while back I posted an entry about the “cultural cognition of nanotechnology risks.” The entry described a study that members of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School had done that showed that exposure to just a small bit of information about nanotechnology — a subject the vast majority of Americans have heard nothing or little about — can instantly polarize people along cultural lines. I promised that I would post another entry describing techniques for ameliorating this type of cultural polarization on risk issues.

Well, I waited about 6 months or so, not just to let suspense build but also to gather some data so that it wouldn’t seem I was just engaged in wild-eyed conjecture (although truth be told, I’m pretty partial to that mode of exposition). Now I’m going to describe a framing technique for reducing cultural polarization that involves identity affirmation (a communication strategy based on the work of social psychologist and Cultural Cognition Project researcher Geoff Cohen). And I’m going to illustrate how it works with a study that relates to global warming.

Let me start with just a little bit of background. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the psychological disposition of people to form beliefs about risk that cohere with their values. People who hold relatively egalitarian and communitarian values, for example, worry about environmental risks (nuclear power accidents, global warming, air pollution, etc.), the abatement of which would justify regulating commercial activities that generate inequality and legitimize the unconstrained pursuit of individual self-interest. Persons who subscribe to relatively individualistic values, in contrast, reject claims of environmental risk precisely because they cherish markets and private orderings. They worry instead that excessive gun control will render individuals unable to defend themselves — a belief congenial to the association of guns with individualist virtues such as self-reliance, courage, and martial prowess. Persons who hold traditional or hierarchical values fret about the societal risks of drug use and promiscuous sex, and the personal risks associated with obtaining an abortion or smoking marijuana — forms of behavior that denigrate traditional social norms and roles.

One of the basic mechanisms behind the cultural cognition of risk is identity-protective cognition. As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.

This process, though, can presumably be reversed or at least mitigated. If one can frame risk information in way that affirms rather than threatens persons’ defining commitments, then those persons should be able to process information more open-mindedly.

We (Don Braman, Situationist Contributor Paul Slovic, Geoff Cohen, John Gastil and I) decided to test this hypothesis in an experiment focusing on global warming. People with individualistic values tend to be skeptical of environmental risks like global warming because accepting such risks seems to imply that government should regulate commerce, an activity individualists like. But it turns out that one possible solution to global warming is to rely more on nuclear power, which doesn’t emit the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel energy sources. Cultural individualists like nuclear power, because it is a symbol of individual initiative, industry, and mastery over nature. Advised that nuclear power is one solution to the risks of global warming, then, individualists should be more receptive to information suggesting that global warming in fact presents genuine and serious risks.

nuke_vs_antipollution.pngIn our experiment, we divided subjects (whose cultural values we measured ahead of time with appropriate scales) into two groups. Both received a news report describing a scientific study on global warming. The study was described as finding conclusive evidence that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth’s climate could have disastrous environmental economic consequences. In one version of the news story, however, the scientific study was described as calling for “increased antipollution regulation,” whereas in another it was described as calling for “revitalization of the nation’s nuclear power industry.”

The results of the experiment showed that subjects receiving the “nuclear power” version of the news story were less culturally polarized than ones receiving the “anti-pollution” version. That is, individualists who received the “nuclear power” version were less inclined to dismiss the facts related by the described report — that the earth’s temperature is increasing, that humans are the cause, and that the consequences would be dire if global warming were not reversed — than were individualists who got the “antipollution” version, even though the factual information, and its source, were the same in both articles. Indeed, individualists who received the “antipollution” version of the news report were even more skeptical about these facts than were individualists in a control group that received no newspaper story — and thus no information relating to the scientific study that made these findings.individualists_polarization.png

In sum, anti-pollution measures make individualists see red. Nuclear power makes them see green!

This is just one of a variety of experimental findings that appear in a report, “The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of — and Progress in — the American Culture War of Fact,” released last week by the Cultural Cognition Project. The study discusses a variety of issues in addition to global warming, including domestic terrorism, school shootings, and vaccination of school-age girls for HPV. It also identifies other mechanisms for counteracting the divisive effects of cultural cognition on these and other issues. I’ll discuss some of these findings too in future posts – ones that will appear, I promise, in less than six months’ time.

But before I conclude this post, I do want to make one thing clear. The point of “identity affirmation” and like techniques for counteracting cultural cognition is not to induce people to believe any particular set of facts about climate change, gun control, anti-terrorism policies, or the like. Rather it’s to neutralize the tendency of people to polarize along cultural lines as they consider and discuss information about such matters. If society availed itself of risk-communication and regulatory strategies founded on “identity affirmation” and similar mechanisms, disagreements about facts would no doubt persist, but they would no longer take the form of battles between rival cultural factions. And we think that’s a good thing.

Posted in Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Law, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 13 Comments »

 
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