In a series of posts this week, I will discuss ongoing work that I and several other scholars are doing on cultural cognition. The posts will describe the basic theory of cultural cognition, the methods we are using to investigate it, our key empirical findings relating to it, and some of its implications (positive and normative) for law.
But to introduce the topic, I thought it might be interesting to describe one particular, and particularly provocative, dynamic associated with cultural cognition. I’ll call it the “white male status-anxiety effect.”
This label (which I’ll admit is not 100% accurate as a descriptive matter!) is a play on the “white male effect,” a term used by scholars of risk perception. See, e.g., Melissa Finucane, Paul Slovic, C.K. Mertz, James Flynn & Theresa A. Satterfield, Gender, Race, and Perceived Risk: The "White Male" Effect, 3 Health, Risk, & Soc'y 159 (2000). White males, these scholars have shown, are less concerned with all manner of risk--of global warming, gun accidents, various medical procedures, etc.--than are women and minorities. Various hypotheses have been offered to explain the white male effect: that white men are more informed than women and minorities, that women and minorities feel more vulnerable or less able to protect themselves, that women (and perhaps minorities) are more empathetic than white men. But none has been borne out by empirical examination.
So we (Paul Slovic, John Gastil, Don Braman, C.K. Mertz and I) decided to consider another possibility. The reason white males are less afraid of various risks, we surmised, is that they (or really, certain ones of them) are more afraid of something else, viz., the loss of status they would experience were activities essential to their cultural roles stigmatized as dangerous and worthy of regulation.
This hypothesis is grounded in what we call the cultural cognition thesis. Founded on an amalgam of sources in the social sciences (about which I’ll say more in later posts!), the cultural cognition thesis asserts that individuals tend to conform their beliefs about the risks posed by putatively dangerous activities to their culturally grounded moral appraisals of those activities. If an activity is status-enhancing for individuals of a particular cultural persuasion, such individuals are motivated by a form of psychological self-defense mechanism (we call it “status anxiety”) to resist the claim that the activity is dangerous and should be regulated. By the same token, if the activity is one that is status-diminishing within a cultural group, members of that group are motivated to embrace those same claims.
The influence of cultural cognition can be expected to generate differences in risk perception across individuals of varying cultural perspectives. But it also, we hypothesized, ought to create certain differences within groups of persons who share a cultural outlook. The activities (carrying a gun, engaging in commerce, raising a child) that confer status within a particular cultural group are likely to be gender- and race-specific. Accordingly, we should expect to see differences in risk perception that correspond to the diverse values that persons of varying combinations of demographic characteristics and cultural outlooks place on those activities.
In a national study of risk and culture (more on this, too, in a future post), we confirmed this general hypothesis as it applied to a series of putatively dangerous activities. One of these was owning a gun. Guns bear positive moral connotations for persons of hierarchic and individualistic worldviews. Consistent with the cultural cognition thesis, we found that individuals who hold such worldviews are much less likely to believe that guns are dangerous--either for their owners or for society--than are individuals who hold egalitarian and solidaristic views (again, I’ll have more to say about these “worldview” categories--their derivation and our measures of them--in future posts).
But even more important, risk skepticism about guns was most pronounced among white male hierarchists and male individualists. We had predicted this pattern on the ground that the individualist virtues associated with guns--courage, physical prowess, self-reliance--and the hierarchic roles enabled by them--father, hunter, provider--are primarily status-enchaining for men within those groups. Male individualists and hierarchists thus have a much larger psychic investment in resisting the claim that guns are dangerous and worthy of regulation than does anyone else. Moreover, because the hierarchic associations that guns bear have historically been confined to whites, white male hierarchs have the biggest investment of all in seeing guns as safe (indeed, we found, that such individuals believe that gun ownership enhances rather than reduces public safety).
The gender- and race-specificity of cultural differences, we found, totally explained the “white male effect” with respect to gun risks. That is, all the differences between men and women and between whites and blacks observed in our sample generally (N=1800) were attributable to the extreme differences between male and female individualists, and between white male hierarchs and all other hierarchs. There is no “white male effect” per se, but rather a “male individualist” and a “white male hierarch” effect--which fits our hypothesis that these individuals experience the greatest status anxiety when guns are asserted to be dangerous and worthy of regulation.
We found a similar relationship between the cultural status anxiety and the white male effect in environmental risk perceptions. To begin with, there are no differences in risk perception across race once cultural worldviews are controlled for. Gender differences do persist. But they are due entirely to the wide discrepancy in the views of extremely risk-skeptical white hierarchical males and considerably less risk-skeptical hierarchical women. There are no gender (or race) based differences in environmental risk perception among relatively individualistic or egalitarian persons.
Again, these patterns suggest the impact of culture-specific gender differences in status-conferring social roles. Within a hierarchic way of life, men tend to earn esteem by achieving success in civil society, while women earn it by successfully occupying domestic roles. Accordingly, it is hierarchic men, not hierarchic women, who experience the greatest status threat when commercial and industrial activities are challenged as dangerous. But within an individualist way of life, success in the market is status-conferring for men and women. Accordingly, individualistic men and individualistic women react with status-protecting skepticism when commerce and industry are attacked as dangerous. Commerce and industry are symbolic of social inequality and unconstrained individualism within egalitarian and solidaristic ways of life. Accordingly, as a means of promoting their status, men and women alike within these cultural groups tend to embrace claims of environmental risk.
It would be wrong to suggest that white hierarchical or individualistic men are the only ones whose risk perceptions are shaped by status anxieties. Indeed, we found that status concerns also help to explain interesting variations in risk perception among women relating to the dangers of obtaining an abortion. Hierarchical women but not individualistic or egalitarian ones perceive obtaining an abortion to be very dangerous to a woman’s health. Sociologist Kristin Luker depicts abortion as the symbolic focal point in a status conflict between two groups of women: those who subscribe to hierarchical norms that confer esteem upon women who occupy domestic roles such as motherhood; and those who adhere to individualistic and egalitarian norms that confer esteem upon women and men alike for successfully occupying professional roles. It is thus status protective for the former group of women to accept the asserted health risks of abortion and for the latter to reject these asserted risks.
What are the normative and prescriptive upshots of these findings for law? I think there are some, and they are important. But I’ve said more than enough and will leave this as one point readers might like to pursue through discussion.
I will, however, conclude with one more specific point about method. Previous investigators of the “white male effect” (including some who collaborated in this study) had failed to explain it fully not just because they had an incomplete set of explanatory variables but also because they posited too simple a relationship between them and risk perception. In effect, those investigators had assumed that gender and race must be proxies for some other sort of individual difference--in empathy, in political vulnerability, in education, etc.; to test this hypothesis, they devised measures of these others differences and examined whether including them as independent variables eliminated the explanatory power of gender and race in multivariate regression analyses.
The relatively simple but important innovation in our model was to examine how race and gender interact with our key variables of interest. That is, we did not simply plug cultural orientation into our regression as a separate independent variable and see if it neutralized the effect of race and gender. Instead, because our hypothesis was that race and gender effects are culture-specific, we created interaction variables that allowed us to examine how being a man or a woman, or a white or a black influences an individual's risk perceptions as that individual’s cultural orientation is made to vary (and all other influences are held constant). We found that these variables were significant and had the predicted signs. And we were able to determine (through separate analyses in which dummy variables were used to remove these effects) that the observed interactions accounted for the “white male” effect with respect to the risks we investigated.