July 31, 2016

Why We Can't Agree about (Some) Basic Facts

Motivated Cognition

Dan Kahan defines motivated cognition as "the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal." Sports fans provide a great example of this, as they tend to believe that controversial officiating calls that favor their team are correct while those that favor the other team as incorrect. 

The mechanisms of motivated cognition are diverse. "They include dynamics such as biased information search, which involves seeking out (or disproportionately attending to) evidence that is congruent rather than incongruent with the motivating goal; biased assimilation, which refers to the tendency to credit and discredit evidence selectively in patterns that promote rather than frustrate the goal; and identity-protective cognition, which reflects the tendency of people to react dismissively to information when accepting it would cause them to experience dissonance or anxiety."

Cultural Cognition

Kahan et al. (2013) argue that a great deal of political conflict can be explained by a type of motivated cognition he refers to as cultural cognition. Cultural cognition is the unconscious tendency of individuals to steer "away from beliefs that could alienate them from others on whose support they depend in myriad domains of everyday life." People "have a large stake—psychically as well as materially—in maintaining the status of, and their personal standing in, in affinity groups whose members are bound [by] their commitment to shared moral understandings. If opposing positions on a policy-relevant fact—e.g., weather human activity is generating dangerous global warming—come to be seen as symbols of membership in and loyalty to competing groups of this kind, individuals can be expected to display a strong tendency to conform their understanding of whatever evidence they encounter to the position that prevails in theirs."

These authors write, "In the absence of divisive cultural conflict, citizens of all levels of science comprehension generally form positions consistent with the best available evidence." For instance, the public "is not polarized over the utility of antibiotics in treating bacterial infections." "But when a policy-relevant fact does become suffused with culturally divisive meanings, the pressure to form group-congruent beliefs will often dominate whatever incentives individuals have to 'get the right answer' from an empirical standpoint." For instance, even though denying the science on climate change will have adverse long-term consequences, people are primarily motivated by the adverse consequences of believing something that is contrary to their affinity group: "loss of trust among peers, stigmatization within his community; and even the loss of economic opportunities." 

An Important Study

Kahan et al. (2013) asked a simple question: "Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible  scientific evidence?" These researchers tested two possible answers: first, there is disagreement about such issues because many people have limited knowledge and reasoning skills; second, there is disagreement because we have this unconscious tendency to avoid beliefs that could alienate us from our respective affinity groups. 

Kahan et al. (2013) conducted a study involving 1,100 individuals. Researchers first tested the subjects' political beliefs and their numeracy, i.e., their ability to correctly draw inferences from quantitative data. Researchers then gave subjects two different problems which required them to draw inferences from empirical data. First, subjects were given the purported results of a study of a new skin-rash treatment and asked to determine whether the treatment had been effective. Subjects were then given the purported results of a study of a gun-control measure. Some of the gun-control studies showed that banning concealed weapons had made the cities in question safer, while other studies showed that the ban had made the cities less safe. 

Researchers hypothesized that the more numerate subjects would do a better job interpreting data from the skin-rash study, and that was indeed the case. Researchers also hypothesized that all subjects would do a worse job interpreting data from the gun-control study, and that too was the case. Predictably, those who opposed gun-control were more likely to interpret that data as supporting their belief and those who supported gun-control were more likely to interpret that data as supporting their belief. Researchers finally hypothesized that more numerate subjects would more likely to interpret data from the gun control accurately, regardless of their prior beliefs. Researchers were shown to be wrong in their hypothesis, as the more numerate subjects actually did a worse job interpreting data from the gun-control study. Kahan et al. explain this result by noting that "more numerate individuals have a cognitive ability that lower numeracy ones do not" and that they "use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interest in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs." 

Kahan et al. (2013) bring the results together: Citizens do not "remain divided over risks in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence" because they are "insufficiently rational." Rather, "they are too rational in extracting from information on these issues the evidence that matters most for them in their everyday lives. In an environment in which positions on particular policy-relevant facts become widely understood as symbols of individuals’ membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups, it will promote people’s individual interests to attend to evidence about those facts in a manner that reliably conforms their beliefs to the ones that predominate in the groups they are members of. Indeed, the tendency to process information in this fashion will be strongest among individuals who display the reasoning capacities most strongly associated with science comprehension."

How to Save the Republic

Kahan (2010) writes, "The ability of democratic societies to protect the welfare of their citizens depends on finding a way to counteract this culture war over empirical data." Since Kahan's research shows that simply educating the public about these controversial issues will not reduce conflict, we must communicate in ways which have been informed by the findings of cultural cognition. Kahan has proposed three strategies. 

First, identity affirmation (Kahan, 2010). This involves presenting information "in a manner that affirms rather than threatens people's values," as "people tend to resist scientific evidence that could lead to restrictions on activities valued by their group. If, on the other hand, they are presented with information in a way that upholds their commitments, they react more open-mindedly. For instance, people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution. They would probably look at the evidence more favourably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness. Similarly, people with an egalitarian outlooks are less likely to reflexively dismiss evidence of the safety of nanotechnology if they are made aware of the part that nanotechnology might play in environmental protection, and not just its usefulness in the manufacture of consumer goods.

Second, pluralistic advocacy (Kahan, 2010). This involves ensuring that "sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. In our HPV-vaccine experiment, polarization was also substantially reduced when people encountered advocates with diverse values on both sides of the issue. People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it. Thus, giving a platform to a spokesperson likely to be recognized as a typical traditional parent with a hierarchical world view might help to dispel any association between mandatory HPV vaccination and the condoning of permissive sexual practices."

Third, narrative framing (Kahan et al., 2011). "Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates—the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another—vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators  can help to assure that the content  of the information they  are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups (Jones & McBeth 2010)." 

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Jones, M. D., & McBeth, M. K. (2010). A narrative policy framework: Clear enough to be wrong?. Policy Studies Journal, 38(2), 329-353.

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 463(7279), 296-297.

Kahan, D. M., Jenkins‐Smith, H., & Braman, D. (2011). Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research, 14(2), 147-174.

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Dawson, E. C., & Slovic, P. (2013). Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government. Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper.

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