The Situationist

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.

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