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An investigation into the causal underpinnings of the relationship between cultural worldviews and risk perception using novel scales developed to measure cultural worldviews in the U.K.

Cultural cognition is one theory of risk perception that has demonstrated particularly high predictive power (Kahan, 2012). Proffered as a conception of the cultural theory of risk, it proposes that 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 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 welcome restriction on industrial activity thought to perpetuate values of excessive self-interest at odds with their own.

This line of research has produced much insight into the psychosocial drivers of variation in risk perception and political disagreement over risk issues. However, the vast bulk of cultural cognition research has been conducted in the U.S. and relies on measures of cultural worldviews likely to be less sensitive when administered in other cultural contexts. As such, many of the insights generated by this body of research cannot be confidently generalised to cultures outside of the U.S.. Accordingly, the first stage of my PhD project was to develop novel measures of cultural worldviews tailored specifically to measure these constructs in the U.K., where I then assessed the relationship between cultural worldviews and perceptions towards a variety of contested risks.

The second stage of my project, yet to be completed, will be to experimentally investigate the causal underpinnings of the relationship between cultural worldviews and risk perceptions. This is intended to fill a conspicuous gap in the extant literature on cultural cognition and cultural theory more generally, which mostly consists of qualitative and correlational research. It is hoped that untangling the nature of this relationship using experimental methods will help to determine which communication strategies are likely to be most effective in navigating the psychological barriers currently preventing people of diverse cultural orientations from converging on appraisals of risk-related facts consonant with the best available evidence.

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