Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Social Psychology of Risk, Status

(I've continued to have problems getting online reliably: hypotheses abound.)

Researcher Dan Kahan, blogging at Jack Balkin's site, makes more public his explanation for what earlier cultural theorists had called "the white male effect": the seeming paradox that "white men [are] less concerned with all manner of risk (global warming, gun accidents, various medical procedures, etc.) than are women and minorities."

Piggy-backing on studies like this one that classify people according to cultural values, specific their alignment along a hierarchy-egalitarian axis, Kahan finds that the perception of risk aligns well with a hierarchical world-view. According to his work, maximizing risk would threaten hierarchical status, so people with more hierarchical worldviews tend to minimize risk, or even dismiss evidence of risk, in order to protect their perceived status. White men tend to hold hierarchical world views--and across gender lines, those women who also have these views also tend to be less worried about risk. In Kahan's words:
Status-protective motivations help to explain not only differences in risk perception across cultural groups but also certain demographic differences within such groups. Within different ways of life (hierarchical, individualistic, egalitarian, and communitarian), the types of behavior that entitle persons to esteem can vary according to gender and even race. It follows that within particular cultural groups, men and women, and whites and minorities, will react with different degrees of risk skepticism and risk sensitivity depending on whose status the dangerous activity supports.
Examples of issues that spoke to risk-perception were: nukes, the environment, industry, and abortion. Here's the takeaway line from the piece:
The natural tendency of persons (all persons, of all worldviews and demographic characteristics) to protect the status of their cultural group operates as a distorting influence on in the public’s processing of sound information.
This sort of finding always shaves close to being too cute to be true; confirming conventional wisdom by running data through at least two theoretically derived categorizations can lead to one's simply confirming the implicit biases of the theories. Sociology is, however, far outside my expertise: make of Kahan's post what you will, oh my five readers.


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