Americans Culturally Divided on Global Warming, Gun Control and Other Societal Risks, Yale Study Finds

Americans are culturally divided on a variety of societal risks such as global warming, domestic terrorism, the HPV vaccination of school-age girls and firearm restrictions on university campuses.

Americans are culturally divided on a variety of societal risks such as global warming, domestic terrorism, the HPV vaccination of school-age girls and firearm restrictions on university campuses.

This is the conclusion of a new study issued today by researchers affiliated with the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.  The study, “Making Sense of—and Making Progress In—the American Culture War of Fact,” was funded by the National Science Foundation and reflects the results of surveys and experiments involving some 5,000 Americans.

Among the key findings in the study:

  • Americans are split along cultural lines on the question whether stricter gun control will make school shootings like the one at Virginia Tech less likely—or more.
  • Most Americans see domestic terrorism as a serious threat, but their cultural values determine whether the Iraq War has decreased that threat or increased it.
  • Americans are culturally polarized on whether global warming poses a serious environmental risk and whether nuclear power should be used to reduce that risk.

“There is a culture war in America, but it’s not about what people normally think,” said Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School and one of the study investigators. “The vast majority of Americans agree government should avoid imposing one group’s cultural values on others. But people with different cultural outlooks strongly disagree with each other about societal risks and what to do about them….America has a culture war of facts, not values,” Kahan concluded.

The study attributes this form of public disagreement to “cultural cognition,” a psychological tendency to credit or dismiss information about risk depending on whether that information supports or threatens one’s values.

“People who place a high value on individual freedom tend to be skeptical about environmental risks,” Kahan said, “because accepting such risks exist would imply government should restrict commerce, an activity people with such values like. People who value equality readily accept that commerce and industry are dangerous, precisely because they believe those activities create social inequality.”

 People with individualistic and egalitarian values also disagree about the risks associated with guns, the study found.

“After the Virginia Tech shooting last spring, there was a debate about whether strict gun control laws make such attacks less likely or whether they prevent students and teachers from defending themselves,” said research investigator Donald Braman, an associate professor at The George Washington University Law School. “We found that people with egalitarian values took the former position, and people with individualistic values, the latter. As a result, the Virginia Tech shooting had no net effect on public opinion on gun control.”

The study also found that cultural values influence reactions to relatively novel risks, such as the proposal for mandatory vaccination of school-age girls against HPV infection, a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.

“When they hear information about mandatory HPV vaccination, cultural traditionalists, but not cultural egalitarians, worry that the vaccine could have side effects or could cause girls not to use condoms and thus put them at higher risk for HIV-AIDS,” said Kahan.

The study also found that proposed policy solutions can influence reactions to information about climate change.

“Cultural individualists who are told that nuclear power will reduce greenhouse gas emissions are more likely to accept that global warming is caused by humans and is a serious threat than those who are told that restrictive anti-pollution regulations are necessary,” said Kahan. “The reason is that anti-pollution regulations threaten the values of people who like commerce, whereas nuclear power strikes those same people as a good idea.”

“Nuclear power makes individualists see green,” said Kahan.

Visit online for a summary or to download the complete report of The Second National Risk and Culture Study findings.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School is an interdisciplinary team of scholars from Yale Law School, the University of Washington, The George Washington University School of Law, the University of Oregon and Decision Research. Project research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  For more information on the Project, visit the Cultural Cognition Project.

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