The Newtown Shootings, Gun Control, and Cultural Cognition

Like most (all?) of the blog readers, I find it difficult to return to my every day life this morning in the wake of the Newtown shootings. This post is not about the tragedy, nor is it a political or public health analysis of where to go next. Instead I want to offer a meta-thought on the debate itself. In the past 3 days my social media has lit up with postings, comments, etc, about the shooting. About 2/3 of my facebook friends are left of center and 1/3 right of center, and I’ve seen the usual back and forth about criminalizing gun ownership, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” the history of the Second Amendment, more guns in the hands of administrators would have solved the problem, etc.

What has struck me the most, though, is the way in which my very well-educated friends on both sides of the aisle understand the facts about guns and violence. As Dan Kahan and his co-investigators in the Cultural Cognition Project suggest in their study of gun control debates, individuals perceptions about the facts in the debate are highly dependent on world view. To quote from their webpage describing their gun control studies:

From the outset, the Cultural Cognition Project has been focused on the American gun control debate. That debate is naturally framed as one between competing risk perceptions: that too little gun control will increase deliberate shootings and gun accidents; and that too much will render law-abiding citizens unable to defend themselves from violent predation. Associated most famously with the work of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, the cultural theory of risk posits that individuals selectively attend to risk in a way that reflects and reinforces their preferred vision of society. Consistent with this thesis, CCP members have found that which “gun risk” individuals take more seriously is indeed strongly predicted by their cultural worldviews. Persons who hold egalitarian and communitarian worldviews worry more about crime and gun accidents, an  anxiety that coheres with their negative association of guns with patriarchy, racism, and selfish indifference to the well-being of others. Persons of a hierarchical and individualistic worldviews, in contrast, tend to see guns as safe, and worry much more about the danger of being rendered defenseless against attack; this perception of risk coheres with their positive associations of  guns with traditional social roles (father, protector, provider) and individualistic virtues (self-reliance, courage, physical prowess).

I would commend all blog readers to this excellent work. Where it leads me, though, is to question whether it is possible to overcome cultural cognition effects in this area? Does doing so require the kind of cultural education (and in which direction?) that we view in other countries as propaganda? If we cannot overcome our cultural cognition differences, will we as a country remain hopelessly deadlocked?

One thought on “The Newtown Shootings, Gun Control, and Cultural Cognition

  1. I’d also recommend everyone dig into Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.” We miss the ball when we focus on changing people’s arguments to ours. We have to tap the strong, bipartisan and pervasive revulsion at watching massacre after massacre.

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