Duration of your PhD
Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh
My Thesis' Abstract
An Investigation into the Psychological Mechanisms Underpinning the Cultural Cognition of Risk
In a liberal democracy is it important for citizens to form risk perceptions consonant with the best available scientific evidence. Nevertheless, disparities between segments of public opinion and prevailing scientific understandings abound. For instance, despite scientific consensus that the climate is warming (National Research Council, 2010), a sizable minority of the UK public remain sceptical (Poortinga, Spence, Whitmarsh, Capstick & Pidgeon, 2011). Accordingly, much research has been conducted into the areas of risk perception and science communication, with the aim of better enabling the public to make informed decisions about risk-related issues.
Cultural cognition is one theory of risk perception that has demonstrated particularly high predictive power (Kahan, 2012). According to this theory, people are subconsciously motivated to align their appraisals of factual information about the costs and benefits of putatively dangerous activity with their cultural appraisals of these activities. Cultural appraisals themselves are determined by the perceived “fit” between an individual’s cultural worldview and some activity. For instance, people who endorse an individualist (as opposed to communitarian) and hierarchical (as opposed to egalitarian) mode of societal organisation are predisposed to reject claims that unrestrained industrial activity is contributing to a dangerous warming of the climate because their cultural appraisal of this activity is positive. Communitarian-egalitarians, on the other hand, are predisposed to embrace such claims precisely because they invite restriction on industrial activity thought to perpetuate values of excessive self-interest, and hierarchical structures, at odds with their own.
Cultural cognition scales have been used to measure cultural worldviews in the US and to predict perceptions of the risk posed by a range of issues, including climate change, in ways that conform to the logic of cultural cognition theory. There has to date, however, being little research into the psychological mechanisms that underpin the relationship between worldviews and risk perceptions, nor is there any direct evidence that the relationship is actually causal, despite this assumption being fundamental to cultural cognition theory. My PhD project aims to fill this theoretical gap in our understanding of cultural cognition phenomena so that we are better placed to ameliorate the current, and potentially hazardous, polarisation of public risk perceptions.
- To develop existing cultural cognition scales for improved efficacy with UK participants.
- To investigate the causal relationship between cultural worldviews and risk perceptions.
- To investigate the social psychological processes mediating the relationship between worldviews and risk perceptions. Specifically:
- The influence of identity and group processes on cultural cognition phenomena.
- The role of value expression as a motivational driver of cultural cognition.
Overall Methodological Approach
My project will be primarily survey-based and experimental in design. Studies will measure participants’ worldviews using revised cultural cognition scales and a mixture of lab and text-based materials/experimental paradigms will be used to manipulate variables hypothesised to interact with cultural worldviews to produce cultural cognition effects. Where possible, experiments will be conducted using online surveys to improve access to culturally-heterogeneous samples, but certain methods will necessitate experimentation in the lab.