“Kahan’s argument about the woman who does not believe in global warming is a surprising and persuasive example of a general principle: if we want to understand others, we can always ask what is making their behaviour ‘rational’ from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are irrational, no further conversation can take place.”
When people don’t accept the scientific evidence, it may be useless to present them with yet more evidence. They are not stupid. They are simply protecting their cultural identity.
Here’s the journalism:
And here’s the original study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government
Kahan, Dan M., Peters, Ellen, Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=
Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy—a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information—did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized—and even less accurate—when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.
- Politics Makes Morons of Us All (motherjones.com)
“Science Confirms The Obvious: Strict Parents Raise Conservative Kids” – http://pulse.me/s/eC9fb If so, would it be possible to conduct similar experiments to test whether parents with a particularly strong cultural bias raise their children to have a similar bias? So, for example, do Fatalist parents raise Fatalist kids? My guess here is that the social setting is what’s at stake. It might be more appropriate to speak of, an Egalitarian family (ie. a social organisation) than of an Egalitarian parent. But maybe not if you happen to be a psychological researcher. In other words, the methodological individualism in psychological research necessitates the discovery of political or cultural biases in the individual’s head – because (apparently) there is no where else for those biases to reside. But a complimentary approach might be to investigate the ways these biases are constructed and maintained between people – in the their institutions (including the family), in their rules etc.
http://www.columbia.edu/~tdp4/recentpub.html Recent Publications from the journal of consumer research. Michel Tuan Phan and colleagues have been writing some interesting articles on the ways in which we use our feelings as information. Interesting not least because I want to ask where those feelings came from in the first place.
Every salesperson has learnt that you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle.
Sizzle: “the desirable, tempting and enticing sounds and aroma that convince you to eat what is basically a dead pig.”
Sausages are only the start, of course. Wouldn’t you love more time? This new dishwasher will give you what you want! A dishwasher is what you have to offer, but the promise of more time is what you actually sell.
Don’t you long to stay young forever? This new cream/car/drink will make you look as young as you feel! The promise of eternal youth is so desirable, tempting and enticing that it can be used to sell almost anything.
This approach has been highly successful at selling dishwashers, cars, creams and drinks as well as sausages, but can it work with social issues? The social marketing movement certainly thinks it can, and it has some great ideas for improving communication (think Hillary Clinton vs. Obama, or the old Hillary versus the new).
But like all simplifying processes, it misses out something important. The sizzle approach assumes we all desire the same thing, that our needs and wishes are simple and fairly undifferentiated. In the background to all this is the highly influential hierarchy of needs established by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. In short, Maslow claimed we all look for food and shelter before worrying about status and self-actualization. We only seek the higher order needs once our basic needs have been met. Seems obvious, but research carried out at Goon Park showed that primates don’t actually work like that: those baby rhesus monkeys sought out maternal comfort [even though fake] before basic food and water. Harry Harlow wrote, “Certainly, man does not live on milk alone.”
The secret to selling the sizzle of social progress is to recognize that the sizzle comes in four distinct varieties. Not one. Not two. Sure, four is harder to deal with than one, but the good news is it’s not ten – or fifty. If you can get your head around just four varieties of sizzle – four alternative storylines – then you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and to everyone else for that matter.
Jonathan Haidt has a new book out which goes some way towards explaining the significance of emotions and intuition for moral reasoning. He says it much more elegantly, but the gist it that it’s not all sausage – a lot of moral reasoning is sizzle. However The Righteous Mind sticks to the traditional conservative/liberal distinction and so in my opinion misses some of the opportunities that a Cultural Theory perspective offers.
For more details read The beetroot lesson: the politics of disgust.
Margaret Heffernan has written a book on willful blindness [excerpt] and there’s a great article in New Statesman. Here’s just one of the telling quotations Heffernan uses to illustrate her case. It comes from the economist Paul Krugmann, speaking of the blind spots in his own economic modelling:
“I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that the stuff that I stressed in the models is a less important story than the things I left out because I couldn’t model them.” [Paul Krugmann]
We all risk seeing only part of the story – the part we want to see. It’s really important to notice this and try to do something about it. I’ve written before now that Cultural Theory is one attempt at trying not to fool yourself. It seeks to understand how our social contexts effectively do some of our thinking for us. They make some thoughts easy and others hard. They make some things easy to see and render others invisible. Margaret Heffernan cites the example of Richard Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers. Before that company’s collapse Fuld would get to work by helicopter and chauffeured limo in such a way as to avoid seeing anyone. The point is that while he may have made the bubble in which he lived, nevertheless the bubble also made him.
The subtitle to Willful Blindness is “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril” . Surely part of an answer is that the obvious is less obvious than it should be. It is our institutions, not just our brains, that make it so.
Roepik is the author of How Risky is it, Really? Why our fears don’t always match the facts. His website offers exerpts from the book and -wait for it –
While you’re here, though, you could take our little fourcultures quiz just to the right of this page. How much is there?
You know you want to.
…and if you really can’t get enough quiz in your life, why not try the cultural theory quiz posted at the OK Cupid website (no, really). According to its creator, ” The test items are taken from Gunnar Grendstad and Susan Sundback’s paper “Socio-demographic effects on cultural biases” published in Acta Sociologica, vol. 46, no. 4, 2003, pp. 289-306.”
Maybe one day I’ll get round to writing about my scepticism of these kinds of tests. There, I said it.
- David Ropeik: Where You Stand on the Culture War Issues, and Why! (huffingtonpost.com)
Matthew Taylor of the RSA sometimes writes about cultural theory and when he does it’s always worth reflecting on. At the very end of 2009 he was looking at the idea of free will:
Faced with a social choice we can do what we want or feels right for us (individualistic impulse), do what the group expects/needs (egalitarian impulse), do what we have been told (hierarchical impulse) or ‘decide’ it’s not worth making a choice (fatalistic impulse). Is it credible and useful to think of the everyday experience of free will as the process of switching between these alternative responses?
The problem with free will is that we only have it until we walk out of the door in the morning and maybe not even that long. Every time we make a choice we are interacting with institutional forces and established practices which have a strong shaping power over our lives.
Let’s say I decide to go to the city by train this morning, but like Frank Sinatra I’m going to do it my way. Although the timetable says the trains leave on the hour, I’m going to catch the one that leaves at twenty past the hour: I’m a free person and can do what I like, no? Continue reading “Do we have free will?”
A recently published research paper lends support to the idea that genes and culture influence one another mutually, effectively co-evolving. A link has been proposed between the collectivism-individualism scale of national cultures and a gene that affects the supply of seratonin to the body, the seratonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. A media-friendly summary of the research is available. On the background to biocultural anthropology see Bindon (2007).
The method used for measuring culture is interesting and fairly well documented (Hofstede 2001; Hofstede and McRae 2004). The individualism-collectivism scale is similar to the ‘group’ dimension in Grid-Group Cultural Theory.
This leads to a number of questions:
- If 5-HTTLPR can be seen as a ‘group’ gene (i.e. its prevalence is correlated with a communal rather than individual culture), does this mean we should now be looking for a ‘grid’ gene, to confirm or deny the typology of Cultural Theory? To be specific, the individualist-collectivist scale only allows for one type of collectivist culture (ie. collectivist) whereas from a Cultural Theory perspective there is clearly more than one basic type, namely Hierarchical collectivism (high grid) and Egalitarian collectivism (low grid). It is hard to say prima facie that these two types are so similar to one another that no further distinction needs to be made. The same goes for the two types of individualist cultural bias, Fatalist (high grid) and Individualist (low grid).
- Or, if the group dimension needs to be augmented with the grid dimension, what does this mean for the results of a study that claims to have described regional cultures in terms of only one dimension? It was anthropologist Mary Douglas’s claim that the group dimension, individualism-collectivism, was not on its own enough to describe cultural biases, and that a fourfold typology was necessary. If this is so, we could hypothesise that in the seratonin study, there will be interference caused by the unexamined ‘grid’ dimension, that needs to be controlled for, or otherwise accounted for.
- The argument of the paper is strongly functionalist. That is, culture is seen to have a clear function in relation to the mental health and genetic makeup of individuals, and reciprocally, genetic makeup is seen to have a function in relation to mental health within its cultural context. This seems to have implications for the ways in which Grid-group cultural theory might develop in engagement with genetic and other biological studies of this kind.
- The paper also accepts fairly uncritically the claim of ‘cultural consonance’, that where individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviours, conform to widely shared cultural models, there is a lower incidence of psychological distress (Dressler et al. 2007). I’m concerned about the normative implications of such a claim, that cultural consonance (and possibly cultural conformity) might be seen as desirable because it reduces psychological distress. This contrasts with, for instance, Robert K Merton’s views of deviance, in which besides conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion are alternative was of engaging with cultural norms and goals.
Bindon, James R. (2007). “Biocultural linkages — cultural consensus, cultural consonance, and human biological research”. Collegium Antropologicum 31: 3–10.
Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky
Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print October 28, 2009, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1650
Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and José Ernesto Dos Santos (2007) Cultural consonance and psychological distress: examining the associations in multiple cultural domains. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Volume 31, Issue 2, 195 – 224.
Hofstede, G (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hofstede, G. & McCrae, R. (2004) Personality and culture revisited: linking traits and dimensions of culture. Cross-Cult. Res. 38, 52–88.
Martha Nussbaum has recently written a second book on the connections between visceral feelings of disgust and more abstract responses of indignation. As one commentator put it:
‘disgust can’t be reasoned with. Logical arguments do not make spoiled milk smell better.’
[Image: Darwin Bell]
I think this is precisely wrong. As a child I hated beetroot with a passion. But I convinced myself that if someone in the world liked it there must be something to like. After persisting, I found I not only liked beetroot – I loved it, and still do to this day. Happily the first time I tasted an olive I remembered the beetroot lesson and all was well. As it turns out, disgust can be reasoned with. And further, logical arguments do in fact make spoiled milk smell better. Here’s my logical argument: it’s sour cream. Continue reading “The beetroot lesson – the politics of disgust”