Law and Cultural Cognition

Some time back I noted briefly that there’d been a conference at Berkeley on law and the emotions. Shortly afterwards I got an email from Dan Kahan, one of the academics involved, pointing me to work done by him and his colleagues on the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. To quote from the Project’s own description:

The Cultural Cognition Project is a group of scholars from Yale and other universities interested in studying how cultural values shape the public’s risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities. Project members are using the methods of various disciplines — including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science — to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates.

One of the projects, for example, is on Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions, another is on “Gun Risk” Perceptions.

Interesting as these and other topics are in and for themselves, the Cultural Cognition Project hopes to be instrumental in improving the U.S. socio-political arena:

The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decisionmaking by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking.

On a personal note, it’s encouraging for me to see a law school finally paying attention to social psychology (and I can only hope that Yale and other schools will start thinking about individual psychology as well): it has always struck me as completely bizarre that although there is a tacit assumption that law has something to do with human conduct and is not just an exercise in art — if, as Shelley says, poets can be legislators, then lawyers can be poets — there is not one moment spent in a student’s legal education in exploring the nature of the human actor. It is either assumed that everyone knows what makes one do this or that — or, when the issue is raised — we are always dealing with the meagre economic person, who is motivated entirely by the wish to maximize benefit.

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