Does Cultural Cognition Matter?
Anything I say about voter behavior is likely to be wrong. But I'll take another crack at it. Dan Kahan and Donald Braman of Yale have put out a new paper, "Cultural Cognition and Public Policy"
that puts forward a somewhat-obvious, somewhat-neglected argument. Many of us like to think that, if only we could disseminate correct information about the world—say, the mounds and mounds of scientific evidence that global warming exists—people would come around to our policy views. Not so, argue these folks. If all our differences on policy questions were simply due to the fact that we all have imperfect empirical information, than these opinions would be randomly distributed. But that's not what happens. Cultural cognition plays a huge role here.
Drawing on the cultural theory of risk
, Kahan and Braman graph cultural typology along two axes, with four compass points: individualist vs. solidarist, and hierarchist vs. egalitarian. Where a person sits along these axes is far more likely to determine your policy preferences on various cultural issues than party affiliation or "ideology." So, for instance, people who are more egalitarian or solidaristic are more likely to a)
worry about global warming, and b)
believe that it is real and a serious problem. Likewise, people who are more hierarchical or individualistic are more likely to oppose gun control as a matter of principle, but also
more likely to believe that gun control actually has perverse effects. Willingness to believe certain facts is very much affected by cultural worldview. This also helps explain why a non-expert who believes that global warming is real is also statistically very likely to believe that, say, gun control can prevent violence, even though there's no reason why a non-expert should necessarily believe both empirical results.
As I say, that's all pretty obvious so far. Cultural cognition structures facts, and it also filters facts. An egalitarian person is more likely to listen to other egalitarians, and trust what they have to say. Likewise, scientists or researchers with a particular worldview are likely to be biased in their findings. Frankly, it's not much of a surprise that the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities
always discovers that supply-side economics is bullshit, and it's not much of a surprise that I always trust them. Meanwhile, I'm prey to all sorts of mental biases that reinforce these positions. There's cognitive-dissonance avoidance (believing that what's noble is benign, and what's ignoble is dangerous—e.g., liberal belief that Guantanamo will fuel a global backlash.) Or group polarization, which Cass Sunstein has done much
with. Meanwhile, I'm more likely to believe that I've
arrived at my empirically-based beliefs through objective assessment, and that my opponents are hostage to some biased worldview. And I'm certainly not a perfect Bayesian. So biases due to cultural cognition accumulate over time.
Anyway, enough of that. How does this all affect voting behavior? Well, let's revisit the Tom Frank thesis: Voters are inclined to vote against their self-interest (i.e. Republican) because they're overly-swayed cultural factors. Now I once suggested
that maybe it's not
actually in the narrow self-interest of that many voters to actually vote Democrat. I wasn't happy with the post, though. So let's revise Frank in terms of cultural cognition: Voters' cultural worldviews incline them to believe that a given set of policies actually is
in their self-interest to support, regardless of the facts. Moreover, voters don't spend nearly as much time as, say, bloggers do thinking about public policy. Instead they're inclined to trust whoever shares their cultural outlook on all empirical matters.
In other words, it might not be enough to say to a white working class male in Kansas, "Look, you're continually being screwed by the ruling class. They've dismantled labor protections. Your wages have deteriorated. And yet you go for it because they rile you up about gay marriage!" It won't work. Odds are, unless he believes you share his cultural worldview, he won't trust your assessment of economic life. Or to put it another way: "Moral values" voters probably didn't look at Bush and think, "Hm, he hates gays too," and thus forget
all about economic self-interest. They probably thought, "Hm, he hates gays too, so his line about how Kerry's tax hike will hurt small businesses is probably true and important." Now what Bush said about taxes was utter bullshit. Good luck convincing anyone of that, though! The same might go for voter perceptions of foreign policy too. "Hm, he thinks gay marriage will harm society, so he's probably right that the Iraq war has made us safer." To some extent, the ability of rational persuasion to change that is limited, even if we did shut down right-wing talk radio.
That's not to say that everything depends on gay-bashing, though that's one possible conclusion. Nor is it to say that Democratic politicians could never connect with a certain class of voters. Obviously, if white working-class rural voters think that, say, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer shares their cultural worldview, they're more likely to trust him on various empirical matters that the non-expert can't evaluate on his or her own. And debates can probably be "reframed" to take them out of their usual cultural context, although I don't think George Lakoff is the man you want here. Kahan and Braman, for instance, suggest that reframing can happen if "the common perception that the outcome of [a] debate is a measure of the social status of competing groups" is dissipated. That's not Lakoff, right? But they explain no further. Well, that's all I have for now. Clearly there's much more to be said.