Moving beyond a failure in the marketplace of ideas

The following is a guest post from Prof Dan Kahan in response to a previous post here, on Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness.

4culture’s insightful post put me in mind of something important that in fact he has said explicitly before: Understanding the contribution that cultural influences have on our perceptions of risk (and like facts) cannot only explain but also improve our situation. If we know we have cultural “blind spots” & where they are, then we should be able to do something to reduce their dimensions even if we are constrained (not so unhappily!) always to be who we are and thus see what we see.

In that spirit:

Imagine a “cultural theory” response to the “marketplace of ideas” view of free speech. This view holds that “truth” can be expected to emerge naturally & rapidly take hold in society through the competition of ideas in a “free speech” market (associated with J.S. Mill; Justice O.W. HolmesJr., US S Ct; and others).

Cultural Theory helps to show why this laissez faire attitude toward transmission of knowledge is naive. Through biased search and weighting of evidence, people conform their assessments of information to their cultural values. Accordingly, even if the market of ideas furnishes them with an ample supply of information that it would be very much in their interest to accept and act on (because, say, they are more likely to die if they don’t), culturally diverse people won’t come to see it as true (or at least not nearly so quickly) if it denigrates the worldviews of some portion of them. This “cultural market failure,” Cultural Theory tells us, warrants some sort of corrective intervention. Some possibilities:

1. Affirmation framing

A cognitive rendering of Cultural Theory would say we are unconsciously motivated to resist information that threatens our cultural worldview. One way to mitigate the potential for bias inherent in this dynamic, then, is to try to strive to frame information in ways that affirm a plurality of worldviews simultaneously. Thus, when presenting information about climate change, it might make a lot of sense to give prominent billing to greater use of nuclear power or to the development of geoengineering, steps that are identity-affirming for individualists, rather than focus predominantly on carbon-emission limits, a policy that threatens individualists,

2. “Subsidize” hierarchy

Wildavsky believed that signature blind spots of each worldview meant that societies are most likely to prosper when they have a rich inventory of all worldview types. He was worried that in contemporary America, at least, hierarchy was being driven out by “the rise of radical egalitarianism” and so he proposed that hierarchists should be treated with respect and not vilified so that the value society gets from having hierarchical insight remains available. (Mary Douglas too was very anxious about the decline of hierarchy.) Actually, I think conspicuous efforts by egalitarians and individualists to find ways for hierarchical meanings to co-exist with theirs through adroit framing (point 1) is a way to subsidize; it puts a brake on the instinct to attack and also furnishes evidence to persons of hierarchical sensibilities that they are not under attack and thus promotes their full participation in public debate.

3. Puncturing culture-pluralistic ignorance

It turns out that people tend to overestimate how uniform & how strongly held positions on risk are within their cultural group & within opposing ones. This perception feeds on itself: because individuals sense that they will likely be put at odds with their peers if they take a dissenting view, they are less likely to form one and less likely to express it; such reticence amplifies the signal that views are uniform and strongly held, which increases the pressure to conform, etc. Well, one way around this is to promote (particularly in formal deliberative settings) a deliberative norm of acknowledging the “strongest counterargument” to one’s position. Such a norm gives people an “immunity” from sanction within their own group so they voice equivocation and dissent more freely. The voicing of equivocation and dissent mitigates the impression that views are uniform and strongly held; as that impression recedes, so does the pressure to conform . . . voilà!

I’m sure others can think of more ideas. But the point — as the post makes clear — is that Cultural Theory is not just a theory of bias but also a guide to possible debiasing as well. After all, wasn’t that what Douglas & Wildavsky were trying to provide us?

Related articles

Kahan, D. Fixing the Communications Failure. Nature 463, 296-297 (2010).

Sherman, D.K., Nelson, L.D. & Ross, L.D. Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action: Adversaries are More Similar Than They Think. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 25, 275-289 (2003).

Willful Blindness (

Image credit: http2007/flickr


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