The Self-Defensive Cognition of Self-Defense

80 Pages Posted: 8 Sep 2007 Last revised: 16 Apr 2013

See all articles by Dan M. Kahan

Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School

Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School; Cultural Cognition Project


Why do certain self-defense cases - ones, e.g., involving battered women who kill their sleeping abusers, or beleaguered commuters who shoot panhandling minority teens - provoke intense political conflict? The conventional and seemingly obvious answer is that people judge such cases in a politically partisan fashion. This paper, however, suggests a subtler and more complex explanation. Social psychologists have shown that individuals resolve factual ambiguities in a manner supportive of their defining values, both to minimize dissonance and to protect their connection to others who share their commitments. This form of self-defensive cognition, it is submitted, shapes individuals' perceptions of violent interactions between parties seen to be complying with or defying contested social norms. As a result, even individuals who are trying to decide such cases based on honest and politically impartial assessments of the facts polarize along cultural lines. The paper presents the results of an original empirical study (N = 1,600) that supports this hypothesis. It also explores the normative significance of this account of the origins of political conflict over self-defense cases and how such conflict can be mitigated.

Keywords: cultural cognition, self-defense, battered woman, identity-protective cognition

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M. and Braman, Donald, The Self-Defensive Cognition of Self-Defense. American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 1-65, 2008, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 142, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 364, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 364, Available at SSRN:

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

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Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

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Cultural Cognition Project ( email )

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