Mind & Body

Cultural Cognition Is Why People Don't Trust The Scientific Consensus

From evolution to climate change, there are plenty of scientific topics that have the public embroiled in controversy — even though almost all of the scientific community lands on one side. How is that possible? If the experts agree on something, why doesn't the public listen? It may come down to a phenomenon known as cultural cognition: the tendency for your social identity to shape your beliefs, especially when it comes to controversial ideas.

Individualists vs. Communitarians

In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Risk Research, Dan M. Kahan and his colleagues set out to see how people's worldviews affect how they interpret expert information. A survey put study participants in one of two camps: those who believed more in social hierarchy and individualism, and those who believed more in egalitarianism and communitarianism. Then the researchers asked participants a series of questions about hot-button topics.

In the first experiment, subjects had to decide whether most scientists agreed with statements such as "Human activity is causing global warming" and "Permitting adults without criminal records or histories of mental illness to carry concealed handguns in public decreases violent crime."

In the second experiment, the participants read a description and book excerpt from a fictional expert on a particular topic. All subjects saw the same description of the expert (he earned a Ph.D. in the field in question from an elite university, and now taught at another) but the expert's stance on the topic changed from participant to participant. After reading, participants were asked to decide whether the author was a "trustworthy and knowledgeable expert" on the issue in question.

Campaign for Climate Change protesters

Experts, Schmexperts

If people formed their beliefs on controversial matters just by expert opinion and evidence, the participants' answers should have been split down the middle, regardless of worldview. As we're sure you've guessed, that's not what happened.

On the issue of global warming, "hierarchical individualists" were more likely to believe that experts were divided, while "egalitarian communitarians" believed that most experts agreed.

On the idea that concealed handgun laws decrease crime, it was reversed: more communitarians believed experts disagreed with the statement, and more individualists believed they agreed.

When it came to judging the trustworthiness of expert opinion, it was even worse: each group's answer depended heavily on the content of the book excerpt. If the Ph.D. professor said global warming was a big risk to the planet, individualists said he wasn't trustworthy and communitarians said he was. If the same professor said there wasn't clear evidence for global warming's risks, the answers flipped.

If you've ever wondered why people have such wildly different opinions when it comes to something as seemingly cut and dry as science, this is why. Your worldview and cultural identity don't just color your beliefs about subjective things, but objective reality as well. The most important thing to remember is that it's not just "them" who do this—it's you, too. Don't believe us? Take Psychology Today's cultural cognition quiz to see just how much your identity affects your views.

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Written by Ashley Hamer February 15, 2017

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