Cultural Cognition Thesis

The deficit, dialogue and participation models have continuously faced off with the challenge of accommodating a plethora of complex variables that shape public belief. It’s clear that different groups within the public have differing levels of trust in experts. Take for example the Chernobyl farmers’ refusal to leave the contaminated area as described in the dialogue model post. In addition, the criteria that members of the public use to evaluate scientific information are not always the same as those used by scientists. Humans are not always going to make their decisions rationally and based on only the facts.

In the mid- to late-2000s, another way of studying human behavior in relation to scientific consensus—by way of the cultural cognition theory—arose. Cultural cognition states that when individuals are asked to form beliefs about societal issues, the beliefs formed will reflect what a person already considers to be good or ideal.

Several studies determined that laypeople with individualistic values place more stock in matters like commerce and industry. In this case, issues such as climate change and environmental protections could be very restricting to the profits and growth of industry, so these people will likely be more skeptical of environmental science. They will not want to restrict the things they value.

On the other hand, laypeople who hold more communitarian values and view commerce and industry as means for unequal gains are understandably more willing to accept regulation in favor of the environment. So, there’s a good chance that laypeople are going to believe scientific conclusions that already align with their lifestyle and preexisting values, regardless of the information presented by experts.

By José Martín Ramírez C, provided by Unsplash.

There is no way for laypeople to fully understand or investigate every single scientific issue. This is where the public is forced to rely on expert opinion and research. However, if the effects of cultural cognition are influencing public opinion, individuals will lean towards conclusions that fit their cultural dispositions (individualistic or communitarian). The public might rely on experts, but they often question their credibility and conclusions. Two different people with the same training can easily draw opposing conclusions from the same set of data.

Who are the most credible experts in my opinion? What do they believe? People will gravitate towards opinions that support their cultural perceptions, not those that challenge them. As a result, it is also likely that an individual’s exposure to ‘the other side’ will be limited, further skewing their perceptions and solidifying their beliefs.

“We hypothesized that scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute on such issues not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe” (Kahan et al., pg 166).

The cultural cognition thesis does not propose to eliminate public dialogue because it isn’t based on rational decisions, but rather to change the way that science and related issues are communicated. Mediators, like science journalists, are invaluable in this exchange, for their ability to both translate the science and to write in a way that considers the cultural values of a large, diverse audience.

By Suad Kamardeen, provided by Unsplash.

When considering cultural cognition, scientists and mediators can make it clear that both sides of an issue have diverse values. They can frame their information in a way that is not threatening to any groups of the public. For example, on the topic of increasing global temperatures, communicating that nuclear power is a great option for cleaner energy might be more effective than saying that the coal industry must be stopped at all costs.

Science communication is constantly evolving as technology advances at increasing rates, and as controversy continues to abound on matters that should have none. Understanding the psychology behind human decision is key to effectively communicating science to the public, and the cultural cognition theory is an excellent leap toward bridging the gap.


“From the real experts” photo by Rita Morais, provided by Unsplash.


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

Kahan, Dan M. M., Donald Braman, Paul Slovic, John Gastil, and Geoffrey Cohen. “Cultural Cognition of the Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology.” In The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception, 307-14. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Njoroge, R., Turner, Jeannine, Bourassa, Mark, Kelley, Colleen, Phillips, Beth, & Yang, Yanyun. (2011). Examining Why People Accept (or Reject) the Scientific Consensus on Global Warming: The Role of Demographics, Ideology, and Cultural Cognition, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

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