Cultural bias and the HPV vaccine

Health communicators need to be able to handle… political issues skilfully and they need the training and tools to do so. Otherwise, their health messages run the risk of being ignored in a storm of political outrage. (Abraham 2009)

Prof Dan Kahan at the Yale Cultural Cognition project has been involved in work on cultural influences in the public debate about the HPV vaccine. For many the HPV vaccine will save lives and improve health, while providing strong returns for the manufacturers. For others, though, jabs are just risky or even downright dangerous.  For yet others, in providing the vaccine to teenagers there is an implicit condoning of promiscuity. Whichever it is, the scientific evidence seems to fuel a political debate.  Sales of Gardasil, says the Wall St Journal “have slowed over the past two years, as Merck has encountered difficulty persuading women ages 19 to 26 to get the shot.”

The Cultural Cogniton project is investigating just how people come to their beliefs about scientific evidence.

Some really interesting results:

  • Biased assimilation: when offered more scientific information people’s divergent views diverge even more.
  • The credibility heuristic: reliance on expert opinion is highly significant. People seek experts to align with whose values they already approve of.

There’s a video;

and a summary at the National Science Foundation;

and also a news report.

The original paper is in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

I think we can compare this approach favourably with the quite different approach of Schwartz and Tatalovich (2009), who seek to explain why Canada and the US have different views and a different intensity of views on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The latter study appears to explain the differences by pointing out that the two countries, and especially their institutions, are indeed, well, different. It seems rather circular. This kind of reasoning is certainly avoided by the Cultural Cognition approach, though we might still wonder why, in the case of the HPV vaccine, people in some places exhibit greater concern than in others. How exactly does a particular cultural bias come to dominate the public debate in a specific location? Can cultural biases indeed be pinned down geographically in this way, or are they somehow more pervasive, shifting, free-floating? How would we quantify this? Or are we saying that geography is a red herring? That the category ‘resident of California’ is less interesting, less explanatory than the category ‘exhibiting an Individualist bias’? It seems reasonably likely that we could identify geographical variations in the extent to which public issues are routinely polarized. From outside the country it seems as though half of the US media spends its time shouting past the other half in a concerted attempt to out-polarize the opposition. And perhaps this effect is more pronounced in some states and cities than in others.  But that doesn’t begin to account for why, say, a strong grid – strong group bias might take hold of the public in one place, and less so in another. I guess an initial step would be to try to measure that phenomenon, to capture an empirical snapshot, and only then to try to explain the variations. (My own expectation would be that the cultural biases operate simultaneously at different scales and different rates of change, as in Gunderson and Holling’s ‘panarchy’ approach to social-ecological systems. This might make them hard to document empirically but perhaps not impossible).

A final , tangential comment: I’m still skeptical about the Cultural Cognition Project’s reconfiguration/renaming of the grid-group typology identified by anthropologist Mary Douglas (Kahan 2008).  I quite agree that there are almost insurmountable problems with Wildavsky and Dake’s (1990) approach of using independent variables and it’s much better to use two scales. But I wonder how renaming the strong grid –  weak grid, strong group – weak group axes, and moreover reusing names that already have specific meanings in the literature (Hierarchist, Individualist, Egalitarian, Solidarist), can improve clarity. How does it help, for instance, to stop thinking about the Hierarchy quadrant (strong grid, strong group) as Hierarchical (0r even positional), and start thinking about it as Hierarchist-Solidarist? But I acknowledge this is probably nit-picking pedantry on my part, since I can still see Grid and Group under there somewhere.


Abraham, Thomas (2009) Risk and outbreak communication: lessons from alternative paradigms. Bull World Health Organ [online] vol.87, n.8 [cited  2010-01-27], pp. 604-607 . Available from: <;. ISSN 0042-9686.  doi: 10.1590/S0042-96862009000800016.

Kahan, Dan M. (2008) Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk . Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 73 (April 21); Harvard Law School Program on Risk Regulation Research Paper No. 08-20. Available at SSRN:

Kahan, Dan, Donald Braman, Geoffrey Cohen, John Gastil, Paul Slovic (2010) Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition. Law and human behavior

Mildred A. Schwartz, Raymond Tatalovich (2009) Cultural and Institutional Factors Affecting Political Contention over Moral Issues. Comparative Sociology 8 (1) p. 76-104

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