The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion

Political Science & Politics, vol. 44, iss. 4, pp. 711–714.

4 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2016

See all articles by John Gastil

John Gastil

Pennsylvania State University

Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School; Cultural Cognition Project

Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School

Paul Slovic

Decision Research; University of Oregon - Department of Psychology

Date Written: October 1, 2011


Most Americans lack any substantial degree of ideological sophistication (Kinder 1998), yet they often manage to express coherent views across a range of issues.The conventional explanation for this is that people rely on judgmental shortcuts (e.g., Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock 1991). These “heuristics” permit individuals with sufficient political sophistication to sort and filter incoming messages to form relatively consistent views that align with preexisting values (Zaller 1992). If the key cueing device in such models is the source credibility heuristic (Mondak 1993), how do people who lack the time and ability to become actual policy experts have the time and capacity to figure out which policy experts are credible? How does this theory explain the coherence some have found in the views of those with limited political knowledge (Goren 2004)? We approach these two questions with the perspective offered by Mary Douglas (1982) and Aaron Wildavsky’s (1987) cultural theory. In brief, we argue that most peoples neither have the time, inclination, and ability to derive policy positions from abstract ideological principles, nor do they have the inclination or resources at-hand to sort through the empirical claims advanced in technical policy debates. Instead, as Wildavsky (1987, 8) said, “ordinary folk” use the orienting force of culture “to generate miles of preferences” from only “inches of fact.” To make the case for this conception of public opinion, we begin with a theoretical overview of how this process, which we call the Wildavsky Heuristic Model, relates to existing accounts of mass political opinion, particularly those featuring ideology. Then, we test some of this model’s core propositions using original national survey data, and finally, we draw out the theoretical and practical implications of those results.

Keywords: public opinion, cultural cognition

Suggested Citation

Gastil, John and Braman, Donald and Kahan, Dan M. and Slovic, Paul, The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion (October 1, 2011). Political Science & Politics, vol. 44, iss. 4, pp. 711–714.. Available at SSRN:

John Gastil (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

University Park, PA 16802
United States

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)


Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School ( email )

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


Paul Slovic

Decision Research ( email )

1201 Oak Street, Suite 200
Eugene, OR 97401
United States
541-485-2400 (Phone)
541-485-2403 (Fax)


University of Oregon - Department of Psychology ( email )

Eugene, OR 97403
United States
541-485-2400 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics

Under construction: SSRN citations while be offline until July when we will launch a brand new and improved citations service, check here for more details.

For more information