Cultural Cognition and Public Policy

24 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2005

See all articles by Dan M. Kahan

Dan M. Kahan

Yale Law School

Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School; Justice Innovation Lab; DC Justice Lab


People disagree about the empirical dimensions of various public policy issues. It's not surprising that people have different beliefs about the deterrent effect of the death penalty, the impact of handgun ownership on crime, the significance of global warming, the public health consequences of promiscuous sex, etc. The mystery concerns the origins of such disagreement. Were either the indeterminacy of scientific evidence or the uneven dissemination of convincing data responsible, we would expect divergent beliefs on such issues to be distributed almost randomly across the population, and beliefs about seemingly unrelated questions (whether, say, the death penalty deters and whether global warming is a serious threat) to be relatively independent of one another. But this is not the case: factual disagreement is highly polarized across distinct social groups - ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and ideological. Moreover, factual beliefs highly correlate across discrete and disparate issues. What explains these patterns? The answer, we will argue, is the phenomenon of cultural cognition. We discuss original empirical evidence showing that individuals form factual beliefs that reflect and reinforce competing cultural orientations - hierarchic and egalitarian, individualistic and communitarian. We also identify the social and psychological mechanisms through which these orientations shape factual beliefs. And we discuss the implications of this phenomenon for enlightened democratic decision-making.

Keywords: cultural cognition, death penalty, gun control, abortion

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M. and Braman, Donald, Cultural Cognition and Public Policy. Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 24, p. 147, 2006, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 87, Available at SSRN:

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
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Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
2025034132 (Phone)

Justice Innovation Lab ( email )

DC Justice Lab ( email )

1200 U St NW
Washington, DC 20009
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