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The benefits of cultural cognition

I'm very sympathetic to the "cultural cognition" explanation for controversy over risk issues such as climate change. Cultural cognition holds that our positions in such controversies -- including our interpretation of "factual" evidence -- is largely driven by our identification with certain cultural groups. By and large we believe in or deny anthropogenic climate change because that belief is socially rewarded in our cultural group, not because we've rationally assessed the evidence.

Where I tend to diverge from Dan Kahan (the leading modern proponent of the cultural cognition theory) is over whether cultural cognition is a bad thing. Kahan regards cultural cognition as unreservedly bad -- a sort of disease or pollution in our debate about an issue, something to be prevented or neutralized whenever possible so that we can make rational assessments of the evidence. I, on the other hand (and I like to think this is more in line with the views of Mary Douglas, whose work is the basis for the idea of cultural cognition), tend to believe there are ways that cultural cognition can be functional and beneficial. One such way is suggested in this recent post by David Ropeik.

Ropeik suggests that we shouldn't wait for the public to come around on climate change. Even the most skillful risk communication strategies will never convince the public to make a grand outcry that pushes our leaders to finally take the kind of drastic action necessary to avert the damaging consequences of climate change. Instead, the powerful in politics and business need to be willing to act without a public mandate, exercising foresight to deal with the problem even in the absence of a broad-based push from below. He cites as an example the effort by several major companies, including Apple, to use all renewable power.

It's common for both critics and boosters to think of major corporations as driven wholly by the search for efficiency. The profit motive and the inexorable clench of the invisible hand will, we're told, strip away all extraneous considerations and lead companies into coldly rational decision-making. But in fact corporations are heavily culturally embedded institutions. Even when they're acting purely rationally, they're doing so in a culturally loaded context.

Apple is a prime example of a company heavily intwined with culture. Their brand strategy is all about cultivating a particular image of who an Apple consumer is, and making their products a lifestyle. For convenience, let's call the kind of person who buys Apple products a "hipster." Hipsters are not deeply invested in climate change, and aren't likely (as a group) to generate the kind of mass outcry for change referenced by Ropeik. But they do incorporate a belief in anthropogenic climate change into their cultural identity. And so for Apple to make its operations greener is a good way to align their products better with a hipster cultural identity.

The example of Apple illustrates, then, how the kind of farsighted leadership that might be necessary to solve a problem like climate change can actually be aided by cultural cognition.


Blogger Dan Kahan said...

Very interesting. I'm in 95% agreement. the other 5% (including why I don't think cultural cognition is bad at all!-- I address here.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous David ropeik said...

It is convenient for Apple to do things that align with their customer's cultural norms, but in this case, given that so many other firms are doing the same energy sorts of things (Walmart) I'd guess this is more a straight business choice than anything motivated to take advantage Of the Cult Cog divide.

7:01 PM  

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