The 'Wildavsky Heuristic': The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion

46 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2005

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 15, 2005


In a provocative 1987 article, Aaron Wildavsky asserted that culture operates as the fundamental orienting force in the generation of mass public opinion. The meanings and interpersonal associations that inhere in discrete ways of life, he argued, shape the heuristic processes by which politically unsophisticated individuals, in particular, choose what policies and candidates to support. We systematize Wildavsky's theory and integrate it with existing accounts of mass opinion formation. We also present the results of an original national survey (N = 1843), which found that the cultural orientations featured in Wildavsky's writings accounted for policy-related attitudes on gun control, environment, capital punishment, and gay marriage, even at low levels of political sophistication and after controlling for demographics, left-right ideology, and partisanship. By contrast, much of the predictive power of demographics, left-right ideology, and partisanship on policy attitudes dissipated after taking into account cultural orientations.

Keywords: Heuristics, gun control, capital punishment, politics

Suggested Citation

Gastil, John and Braman, Donald and Kahan, Dan M. and Slovic, Paul, The 'Wildavsky Heuristic': The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion (October 15, 2005). Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 107. Available at SSRN: or

John Gastil

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 (Contact Author)

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)

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