Audio transcript

Dan Kahan

Professor of Law
Yale University
Cultural Cognition Project, Part 1

Recorded June 10, 2010

Joe Cone: Welcome Dan, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me about the Cultural Cognition Project.

Dan Kahan: Sure.

Joe Cone: You’re a professor of law at Yale. And I know you once clerked for Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. And you were president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. So, how is it that we find you interested in the topics relating to public discourse about risk and science policy issues like climate change?

Dan Kahan: I’ve just been really lucky to be in a place where I can continue to expose myself to really interesting things, in the presence of really interesting people. A lot of the people I work with now, are people who have been…that I’ve met here at Yale, and otherwise. I mean, there is an evolution of this from work that I’ve done.

My work, primarily was on social psychology and criminal law. And, lots of the issues I was interested there, led me into investigations of what the relationship is between peoples’ values, say on things like gun control or the death penalty. And the views they have about the kinds of facts, that policy debate, assumes are consequential there. There’s just a remarkable kind of…Well, it’s either a disconnect or just some kind of a strange coincidence…[chuckles]…that needs to be explained.

We’re focusing on policy facts. You know, what is the consequence of control laws. What happens when you have the death penalty. These are hard issues. But peoples’ views on these are not randomly distributed. [Chuckles] We know that people who have certain kinds of outlooks are gonna be on these kinds of issues. That’s the puzzle, broadly stated; that’s the focus of our research: this kind of amazing clustering of peoples’ positions. That if you know how people feel about the death penalty, you probably know how they feel about climate change. You probably know how they feel about nuclear power. You probably know how they feel about the risks and benefits of vaccinating schoolgirls for human papilloma virus.

You know, obviously, the reason that these views are clustering together isn’t that they turn on any shared set of causal mechanisms. Right? So what is it that links these things together? And, in fact, that fascinated me when I was looking at issues relating to regulation and criminal law, and to some extent risk regulation.
The methods that we use to try to make sense of those had general application. But, basically, I’ve just been tremendously fortunate to be able to fall into collaborations with really brilliant people and to keep learning. That’s a just personal side of it. But, you know, it’s the reason to be an academic, ‘cause you can keep learning.

Joe Cone: So most of those who would be the likely listeners to the Podcast, will want to understand, so to speak, the executive summary or the headline first before we get into the interesting details. So for listeners who are new to it, can you briefly state your key insights.

Dan Kahan: To understand it, it’s useful to think of a kind of startling…well, maybe it’s a paradox. And it’s not unlike the one I was already mentioning about this clustering of the peoples’ views with their values. Now, see how this works in an interview. [Chuckles] But imagine…[chuckling]…imagine a little graph here. And on the X-Axis you can think about just the advance of knowledge over time. Right? Over the course of human experience we’ve been acquiring knowledge.

On the Y-Axis, think about the degree of general acceptance of facts about how the world works. Right? And the question is, do you think that the line on that graph slopes upward or downward? In other words, do you think that as we learn more, over time, that the line slopes upward; we’re agreeing on more and more? Slopes downward, we’re agreeing on less and less, or it stays constant?

Now the fact…the truth of the matter is, it’s just clear, we know more than humans have known at any time, but we agree less. We agree less on many tremendous facts of consequence. You know, when Justinian said that Sodomites caused earthquakes, you know, he didn’t…[chuckles]…there was a lot of consensus on it. There wasn’t much dispute about it. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Right?

Now here we’ve got people who understand, you know, gee, earthquakes come from plate tectonics. And, they know something about c limate change, and all of these kinds of things. But there’s actually less agreement about this, right? Why? And the fact that there’s tremendous political dissensus about it. What explains that? Right? That’s the kind of motivation for the work.

The reason you have disagreement about climate change, the reason you have disagreement, you know, about the HPV vaccine, the reason you have disagreement about nuclear power, these are issues in which the systems, the networks of social and cultural certification that people of diverse values rely on, are getting crossed up and tangled up. And that’s a condition that leads to persistent dissensus. And it can even…and it can even kind of just evolve. It can devolve into a real kind of political pathology that makes it even harder to work out.

So in our work, what we do is try to identify what are the kinds of cultural values that people have that locate them within different systems of cues and practices for identifying who they can believe about what. And explain these kind of puzzling patterns that we see about the division. And why is it? You know, what causes them to come into conflict? And then, hopefully, what can you do to get them out of conflict? Not necessarily to make anybody believe any particular thing about any of these issues, but just to satisfy the interest (presumably they would have) in being able to be confident that they’re able to identify and give serious consideration to the best information we have.

Joe Cone: Without attempting in any way to minimize or compress what you just said, would it be unfair, as a one sentence, a kind of distillation, to note that people tend to reject information that threatens their core beliefs?

Dan Kahan: This isn’t inevitable. But when a factual claim becomes connected to some kind of a social or political meaning, that is challenging to the values or status, or the important activities of a group, that will create a difficulty in having …in communicating information to those people.

Joe Cone: So just to clarify, since we’re talking about, in all of this, the cultural cognition hypothesis, to be clear, why do you say “cognition” rather than perhaps the more garden variety “understanding”? You mean something else besides “understanding,” don’t you?

Dan Kahan: “Cognition” primarily, to emphasize…Well, two reasons. We say “cultural cognition.” And cultural cognition of risk is the idea that people tend to conform their beliefs about societal dangers, or how to abate those dangers, to their cultural appraisals of the activities in question.

The same cultural cognition distinguishes that claim from a couple of other claims. One would be just that people use their cultural values to decide what kinds of risks they’re willing to undertake to achieve what kinds of ends. I mean, obviously, what we care about…[chuckles]…and what we’re afraid of, the kinds of things we want to achieve will determine what sorts of risks we’ll take. And people with different values will have different views on those. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about cases where people would agree. You know, nobody wants to suffer calamity. Nobody wants to get sick. You know, nobody wants to have the country made insecure from domestic terrorism, or something like this. But, people who have different values systematically end up with different beliefs about what kinds…well, how serious those dangers are and what you should do to avoid them. It’s those factual beliefs. How do values affect that?

And when we say “cognitive,” we’re emphasizing a certain theory about the mechanisms. They’re psychological mechanisms that connect peoples’ values to their beliefs. I mean, you alluded to one idea that sometimes beliefs will become associated with meanings. And maybe even emotional resonances that are threatening to things people care about. And that will have an influence on how they respond to information about those claims.

But there are others as well. Ones that have to do with the selective attention that people give to information. Others with whom they trust when there are debates. Right? So these are all discrete mechanisms of cultural cognition. They’re things social psychology, including the psychology of risk. And I mention Paul Slovic’s work on the psychometric theory. . . the work we do is to show how, when these mechanisms of cognition interact with values, you end up with systematic differences in conflicts between people who have different values.

Joe Cone: And clearly, we’ve been talking about culture in the broad sense of a system of social beliefs, rather than in the more narrow sense, which may come to mind first, of essentially aesthetic culture such as whether one prefers Bluegrass or Italian opera, right?

Dan Kahan: It’s actually a fairly un-ambitious understanding of culture. All we’re talking about is trying to come up with a framework of how to characterize peoples’ values in ways that we recognize they differ. That then have a certain general applicability to the range of issues that feature in public discussions and disagreements about science. Right? So if you have a framework like that, then you’ll be able to make some good predictions about who’s gonna feel one way or the other. You’re gonna have some ability to explain it. And, you’re gonna have some way to think, well, maybe here are some ways we can figure out communication strategies for helping people

But we have a relatively simple framework. at it’s culture, the right definition of culture. We just claim that it’s the right kind of…or a useful framework to understand the issues this way.

Joe Cone: So let’s dive in a little bit. So if you would, it would be helpful, I think, for the listeners to describe the cultural cognition, shall we call it a framework? And particularly your analysis of the public, as you’ve been talking about.

Dan Kahan: It asserts some general points about the origins and the processes of belief formation. That there’s a kind of unity in this that we think will…that the exploration of which will help to illuminate why we have the range of the problems that we do. It’s a way of actually trying to integrate and extend various kinds of dynamics social psychologists and others are already familiar with.

We talk about a lot of different kinds of dynamics. Let me give you an example. Something like the availability heuristic. All right? So Paul Slovic does work on this, important work. And Danny Kahneman and others have extended it. That, people tend to form estimations of risk that are disproportionally responsive to the…to readily recallable, vivid instances of some kind of misfortune. Right? So maybe they hear about Chernobyl or a Three Mile Island. They don’t hear about all the times when the nuclear power plant is working properly, and so forth and so on. So, because that comes to mind and it’s vivid, they overestimate the likelihood that there’ll be dangers with nuclear power plants.

Well, here’s a question. [Chuckles] Why do some people have available some kinds of misfortunes -- and other people, other kinds of misfortunes? Some people, when they hear news about something like a mass shooting, a Columbine situation, well, what’s noticeable to them, what sticks with them; what then becomes the available image that informs their later estimation of how risky gun possession is, is the actual massacre.

Somebody else though, sees the story and attends to a detail that was overlooked by the other person, that these incidents end when somebody, a private citizen, is able to obtain a weapon and to use it defensively, or maybe some aspect of the story that suggests somebody was prevented from interrupting the incident through the use of the defensive weapon. And so, for that person, the incident becomes a kind of vivid and available representation of what the risks of too much gun control would be.

Both of those [responses] fit the availability heuristic, but what you want to know is how does one and the same mechanism generate these opposing views? The theory we have is that there are individual differences in how these mechanisms operate can be identified with certain kinds of latent attitudes; understandings about how society should be organized, that make people selectively attend to the kinds of stories that are congenial to how they would like to think society should work. Right?

But the goal is really to furnish an account of individual differences that will fit in with lots of things that we already know about how people form different risk perceptions.

Joe Cone: Since you’ve already softened them up with one X-Y diagram…[both chuckle]… perhaps a nice diagram with the X and Y-Axis, and with labels at the top and the bottom, perhaps that would give them a clear picture of the overall….

Dan Kahan: This is a very spare conceptualization, which has certain virtues, if you’re trying to attach things and if you’re trying to connect lots of disparate things. But we have a framework for characterizing peoples’ values. We actually…it’s something we’ve adapted from an anthropologist, Mary Douglas, and her collaborator, a political scientist, Aaron Wildavsky, who did what they call the cultural theory of risk, that characterizes peoples’ world views or preferences about how society should be organized, along two…you can think of crosscutting dimensions…[chuckles]…if you want to think of a picture. It’s a 2-by-2.

But one dimension of peoples’ worldviews, how much a differentiation authority, hierarchy, command and control do they want, versus how much equality do they want. People not subject to the authority of people who have some kind of a formal and enduring status.

The other dimension would be how oriented society is to providing for, collectively for individual needs. Is it society’s responsibility to provide peoples’ needs and do those…the social function and doing that take precedence over individual interests, on the one hand? Or a more individualistic understanding, where people think you should be securing your own flourishing with assistance, and also without interference.

So we have ways of trying to measure those attributes in people. And then those are the primary predictive variables in the theory. Right? So we use those to form hypotheses about who is going to fear what, and why. And then we use a variety of methods; sometimes survey methods but often experimental methods, to try to confirm the predictions. And also identify what those discrete mechanisms, that I was talking about before are.

[End of Part 1 of Interview]

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Last updated: July 21, 2010

Note: This is an accessible version of a document originally produced for the Web in .pdf format. While it contains all significant content of the original print document, it omits layout and graphic elements which contribute to the look and feel of the original, and make the .pdf version more suitable for printing.

Contact us: [email protected]