The Cultural Cognition and Understanding of Risk


This looks useful for addressing communciations issues with investment risk perceptions as well as any science and technical information based decision-making, e.g., medicine

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to:

  • fit their perceptions of risk and related factual beliefs to their shared moral evaluations of putatively dangerous activities
  • The cultural cognition thesis asserts that individuals are psychologically disposed to believe that behavior they (and their peers) find honorable is socially beneficial and behavior they find base socially detrimental

The cultural theory of risk posits that: 

  • individuals can be expected to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized ‘way of life’
  • Persons whose values are relatively hierarchical and individualistic will thus be skeptical of environmental risks, the widespread acceptance of which would justify restricting commerce and industry, activities that people with these values prize
  • persons with more egalitarian and communitarian values, in contrast, resent commerce and industry as forms of noxious self-seeking productive of unjust disparity, and thus readily accept that such activities are dangerous and worthy of regulation

The second theory is the psychometric paradigm’. This position identifies recurring cognitive and affective dynamics that cause individuals to form risk perceptions systematically different from ones we might expect if such individuals were behaving consistently with rational decision theory.

Cultural cognition attempts to fuse the cultural theory of risk and the psychometric paradigm in ways that permit each to answer questions posed by but not satisfactorily addressed by the other.

The psychometric paradigm thus furnishes an account of:

  • the individual-level mechanisms through which cultural values shape risk perceptions:
  • the opposing outlooks characteristic of hierarchy and egalitarianism, individualism and communitarianism, imbue putatively dangerous activities with resonances (positive and negative) reflected in affective appraisals of risk
  • invest instances of harm (or averted harm) with significance, making them worthy of note and amenable to recollection in the way that the availability heuristic presupposes;
  • trigger the analogical associations that result in biased assimilation of information;
  • underwrite the social affinities that make others credible and trustworthy sources of risk information;
  • and create identity protective motivations to conform one’s beliefs to those of like-minded others in order to avoid dissonance and protect social standing.

For its part, cultural theory remedies the psychometric paradigm with a much-needed theory of individual differences:

  • the interaction of values with the psychological mechanisms featured in the psychometric position explain how one and the same dynamic – whether affect, availability, biased assimilation, source credibility, or others – can nevertheless produce diametrically opposed risk perceptions in different people and indeed intense forms of polarization across groups of persons.
  • By experimental and other empirical modes of investigation, such processes have been shown to generate differences in perception of myriad putative sources of risk