Modeling Cultural Cognition

30 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2007 Last revised: 16 Apr 2013

See all articles by Donald Braman

Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School; Cultural Cognition Project

James Grimmelmann

Cornell Law School; Cornell Tech

Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School


In this article we defend our contention that culture is prior to facts in resolving the gun debate. The basis for this position, simply put, is that culture is prior to facts in human cognition. Through an overlapping set of psychological and social mechanisms, individuals adopt the factual beliefs that are dominant among persons who share their cultural orientations. Far from being updated in light of new evidence, beliefs so formed operate as an evidentiary filter, inducing individuals to dismiss any contrary evidence as unreliable, particularly when that evidence is proffered by individuals of an opposing cultural affiliation. So even accepting - which we do - that individuals care about both what guns do and what guns mean, it's idle to hope that consensus based on empirical research can settle the gun debate: individuals simply won't perceive any such consensus to exist so long as cultural conflict over the meaning of guns persists.

We fill out the details of this claim - and the extensive research in social psychology on which it rests - by developing a series of models that simulate the formation and transmission of belief. Section 2 will present the Factual Enlightenment Model, which shows how persuasive empirical proof can indeed generate societal consensus on a disputed issue. Section 3 will present the Cultural Cognition Model, which shows how various social and psychological mechanisms can generate beliefs that are uniform within and polarized across distinct cultural orientations. Section 4 develops a model - Truth vs. Culture - that shows that cultural cognition constrains factual enlightenment when these two dynamics of belief-formation and transmission are pitted against one another. And finally, in section, we develop a Breakthrough Politics Model, which shows how persuasive empirical proof can dispel culturally influenced states of false belief once policy options are invested with social meanings that make them compatible with diverse cultural orientations.

Keywords: cognition, psychological and social mechanisms, cultural cognition, empirical

JEL Classification: K14, K40, K42

Suggested Citation

Braman, Donald and Grimmelmann, James and Kahan, Dan M., Modeling Cultural Cognition. Social Justice Research, Vol. 18, No. 3, September 2005; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 295; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 295. Available at SSRN:

Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Cultural Cognition Project ( email )

2000 H St NW
2000 H Street
Washington, DC 20052 20052
United States
202-491-8843 (Phone)
202 491-8843 (Fax)


James Grimmelmann

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

111 8th Avenue #302
New York, NY 10011
United States

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


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