Cultural Cognition: A Window on How We Perceive Risk

by Eric Ellman

Dan Kahan, director of Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, challenges us to question why we believe what we believe. In a world that overwhelms us with information, he says, complex topics compel us to rely on experts for opinions in areas where we have neither time nor training to reach our own conclusions. And that whom we consider an expert is governed more by our values than by our knowledge of science. His data demonstrates that those who deny the significance of anthropogenic climate change are as scientifically literate as those who accept the consensus of climate scientists that carbon emissions cause global warming. Apparently, personal values determine on which side of the ideological fault line we reside. The messenger – in this case – is more important than the message.

Cultural cognition research considers people along two spectrums: hierarchical to egalitarian and individualistic to communitarian. Those who are more individualistic and hierarchical tend toward suspicion of government and measures that compromise personal choice.  Conversely, the more egalitarian and communitarian fear the prospects of climate change more than governmental reforms. People with individualistic hierarchical values are inclined to identify with and therefore trust leaders of industry and commerce. People with egalitarian communitarian values assign more credence to the opinions of environmental professionals and academics,

This year’s 5th annual YCEI conference cut across those divisions: It began with External Affairs Director for Shell Oil, Niel Golightly explaining his company’s support for what might be considered an egalitarian communitarian objective, a price on carbon.  It closed with former YCEI Director and Chair of the IPCC, Dr. Pachauri, inviting Shell to partner in a peer-reviewed study on the financial implications of their long-term planning which already assumes a $40/ton price on carbon.

Cultural cognition theory suggests that if a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, endorsement from oil company executives can help overcome the resistance of hierarchical individualists who stand in its way. And that just as it takes an industry representative to convince climate skeptics that a carbon tax is not antithetical to profit-making, academics with egalitarian communitarian credentials have a potential cross-ideological role in the climate discussion to play. 

This common appreciation among industry and climate leaders is a critical alignment and one that YCEI hopes to explore more deeply. Ultimately, if a price for carbon or a cap-and-trade system are paths for lower carbon emissions and climate stablization, cultural cognition theory tells us that industry advocates are the necessary messengers to promote implementable solutions.  And if nuclear energy and, or natural gas are necessary components of our future energy mix, egalitarian comunitarians may be needed to make the case