Posted by: Geoff Wing | February 24, 2010

Does cultural cognition explain our climate change deadlock?

Senator Jim Inhofe mocks Al Gore

In early February, record-breaking snowfalls paralyzed the US East Coast. As cities stopped functioning, a strange thing happened: the climate change culture wars erupted. Republican Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma made fun of climate change messenger Al Gore (the igloo picture is “Al Gore’s New Home”), writing that the snow proved that global warming science was wrong. His tribe of American global warming skeptics cheered. The scientific community reminded us that global warming is a long term effect not observable season by season, restating that this weird and wild weather was exactly what climate change would create as temperature rises changed historical weather patterns, and their tribe of  global warming supporters cheered.

How can the same facts be used to justify completely opposing conclusions? Why does scientific information get disputed and politicized so badly? Why, in a country so proud of scientific fact and rationality do we have have heated disputes about the truth of evolution, the existence of global climate change, the necessity of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations, and the child-welfare effects of gay and lesbian parenting? Our polarized public debate has created national paralysis on these and many other issues.

As a young cell biology and genetics undergrad student, I thought the problem was about science education. I was certain that scientific truth was obvious to anyone who took the time to listen to or read about it. I was convinced that rational discussion of scientific findings would convince the entire world about the rightness of science. But after I graduated, I found out I was fundamentally wrong about human nature.

It turns out that we humans are driven to do strange things by our unconscious minds. We’re not the rational individualists we like to think we are. Instead, we’re emotional social animals who need to be liked, driven by our need to form kinships with the people we whose values we share and admire. So we filter the information we hear to reinforce our personal beliefs in ways that make us liked by those we admire. In other words, we feel kinship to a team, then listen to information and unconsciously filter it so the information confirms our belonging that that team. This is called “cultural cognition”, referring to the tendency of individuals to listen for what they want to believe in so it confirms their personal cultural identities. We believe in whatever helps us belong.

Who is uncovering this uncomfortable fact about us? It’s scientists again, a multidisciplinary group of social scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and others leveraging the ideas of complex adaptive systems to explore how individual persons interact with each other to cause group behavior and beliefs that emerge in unexpected ways. Their study of cultural cognition describes the influence of group values on risk perceptions and related beliefs. The article by Dan Kahan below studies the cultural values of equality and authority versus individualism and community. Summarizing the cultural cognition mechanism behind the global warming debate:

  • People are disconcerted to believe that behavior they aspire to is detrimental to society while behavior they dislike is beneficial. Because accepting evidence about this could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional reason to reject it. Therefore, in the global warming debate:
  • People with individualistic values who aspire to personal initiative, and people with hierarchical values who aspire to respect authority tend to dismiss evidence of global warming because it would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, which they admire. These are the global warming skeptics represented by Republican Senator James Inhofe.
  • People with egalitarian and communitarian values are suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as causes of unjust disparity. They tend to believe evidence that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted, so tend to accept evidence of global warming.

As a democratic society where consensus drives political change, it’s important that we acknowledge how cultural cognition makes us form belief-based teams around many important social issues that America faces.  Climate change is just one of them. Other hotly contested issues include health care, risk perceptions around nanotechnology, the use of deadly force in police work, risks of synthetic biology, risk perceptions around gun control, and risk perceptions around the death penalty. I believe that the risk of political paralysis is especially high for America because our two-party political system tends to divide us into two polarized teams: conservative versus liberal. Multiparty countries have more teams to belong to, creating a larger diversity of opinions and possibly causing less paralysis. Think about it. America is one of the very few places where the existence of climate change and evolution are debated.

Is cultural cognition driving us to political paralysis?



  1. Cultural cognition drives everyone: I know that it drives me. As a North American science undergrad it was really important for me to do well in my classes and look good to my professors, so I’m sure I aspired to be like them and adopted their values. The cell biology and genetics people were notorious for their eccentric geekiness, bad puns, love of Gary Larson cartoons, and their certainty that scientific knowledge and empirical methods was good for everyone in all situations. All of those things described me and my personalty for the following 5 years. I began to lose those values and beliefs after moving to Japan and being immersed in Tokyo’s world of business, where my overbearing geekiness looked foolish and empirical methods were of no use for selling new products that had no market history. Yes, I found myself changing myself to fit in with the people around me even though I tried not to.

    Does anyone see how cultural cognition and the people around you shapes your beliefs?

  2. Well, now several groups of anti-evolution fundamentalist Christians are expanding their anti-science cause to global warming.

    An interesting quote that paraphrases their doubt of human-caused global warming: ““it is hubris to think that human beings could disrupt something that God created.”

    Read the article from the New York Times:

    Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets –

  3. These must be the same people who insist that the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood….

    It is amazing what peoples wants and desires will do even if the result is not in their (or others) best interest. This does not happen just in the USA, in India I was told that pollution controls were an indulgence for the rich. In Morocco streams where our local contacts swam when they were young were now too polluted to be near due to the rise of local industry. Narrow beliefs (and needs) that bring near term satisfaction but long term harm seems to be part of the human condition.

  4. Does anyone see how cultural cognition and the people around you shapes your beliefs?

    This is a similar question to one I’ve been asking myself: why am I constantly being agressively pursued by people on one side or other of the political spectrum to state my position in agreement or disagreement with them? They seem to be seeking constant approval or shoring up some nonexistent bulwark. As time passes, one can call it cultural cognition or something else. One thing does occur to me is the lack of civility in these exchanges. If one disagrees, one is consigned to the further reaches of hell or is somehow ignorant & needs re-education.

    This also points out the dangers of a polarized society. American Studies scholars have shown the political development of this country occurring over a long continuum with forces from many parts of the values spectrum. Today, there are people teaching political science in our schools & universities who make no bones about which “side” of an issue they take. In my opinion, this is detrimental to the cultivation of intelligent debate and unsupportive of the development of tolerance and dignity.

    What do you think we can do as ordinary people to encourage intelligent, thoughtful, open minded interaction on the issues?

  5. Re – What do you think we can do as ordinary people to encourage intelligent, thoughtful, open minded interaction on the issues?

    — Like Facebook is really like going to take us down a path where mere ‘cognition’ is going (already going) to go the way of the ape tail…head for the hills (or whatever is left)

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