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Kahan on Cultural Cognition and Self-Affirmation:
Guestblogging at Balkinization, Yale lawprof Dan Kahan has an interesting post on tactics for building political coalitions behind policy solutions. As I see it, Kahan's argument boils down to a combination of two basic points:
  1. People are more likely to believe in solutions that appeal to their cultural worldview.
  2. People are reluctant to identify a problem as a problem unless they believe a viable solution exists.
  Kahan then puts these two points together. If you frame a solution to a problem that appeals to someone's cultural worldview, he reasons, you have a better chance than otherwise of getting political support for it. People may actually believe in the solution and thus be more willing to acknowledge the problem. According to Kahan, this dynamic reveals how policymakers can harness "the phenomemon of cultural cognition" to foster a "political analog of the Cohen self-affirmation effect." (For more, see Kahan's recent paper, Cultural Cognition and Public Policy.)

  I wonder, isn't this also the basic idea behind being a salesman? If you are trying to sell a product, you try to figure out your potential customers' worldview and values. You then use that to pitch your product as the answer to an unmet and perhaps unrecognized need. A good salesman can persuade a customer that they have a problem they didn't realize that they had, and that the salesman's product is the best solution to the problem. The product (and the salesman's pitch) is designed to create the perception of a problem the product solves. Am I missing something, or is Kahan's framework a somewhat similar idea applied to selling policy solutions?
Brett Bellmore (mail):
Of course, if a "solution" is sufficiently attractive to people of a certain worldview, they're liable to perceive a problem even where none really exists, and then attribute the failure of others to notice the pseudo-problem to that same "culutural cognition". I think that, as a general rule, it's best to accept people's reasoning at face value, and address it on the level of argumentation and evidence, than to treat people's beliefs as symptoms of some psychological problem.
8.9.2005 1:17pm
42USC1983 (mail):
Amazing how a professor's use of fancy-pants language can turn salesmanship into something esoteric. Also amazing that someone as egalitarian as the professor you linked to would use unnecessarily big words - thus scaring away people with insights from commenting.
8.9.2005 8:12pm
David Kravitz (mail) (www):
I just saw "Glengarry Glen Ross" on Broadway, which is all about salesmen and, in particular, the ability of a good salesman to get people to buy things they don't really need. For anyone who hasn't seen it and has the chance, it's fantastic and you should go. Funny, though, the term "Cohen self-affirmation effect" did not appear in the play (in contrast, the term "cocksucker" appeared on several occasions).
8.10.2005 12:47am
Dan Kahan (mail) (www):
Hi. This is an interesting discussion.

I'd reformulate the summary a bit:

1. A person is less likely to perceive a problem (cognitively speaking; that is, really perceive it as existing as a matter of fact) if the consequence of doing so is denigration of their cultural values.

2. If a proposed policy solution to a problem affirms a person's cultural values, she is more likely to perceive the problem that that the policy is addressing, because in that case perceiving the problem doesn't threaten the person's values.

Example from the blog: propose nuclear power as solution, and individualists (who revere ordering and who therefore resist perceiving environemental dangers from commerce) are more likely to see global warming as a problem. Likewise, egaltarians (who despise inequalities resulting from private ordering and who thus deny that inhibiting industry is a problem) are more likely to see nuclear power as a good idea.

Is this salesmanship? Yes, of a sort. But policymakers who don't attend to the political acceptability of their proposals are fools.

Is this obvious? Well, if it is, why do policymakers consistently ignore this dynamic? Or as my Bubusia used to put it, "If your so smart, why aren't you rich?" :) In fact, it's astonishing how often policy advocates insist on proposing solutions that assault the identity of those whom they are trying to persuade (consider the gun debate).

Can this dynamic be used to induce people to see a problem when there isn't one? Yes.... Indeed, I think that happens all the time, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. All the more reason, though, for those who want to make good policy to figure out these techniques and use them to good ends -- after all, it's not like those who will use opinion-shaping techniques for bad ends will recicprocate if those who favor good ones play dumb.

The point about technical language is reasonable. I try to speak plainly, but of course am handicapped by yrs of training...

Dan Kahan
8.14.2005 4:54pm