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Essay: Cultural Cognition v. Bounded Rationality

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  • Cultural Cognition v. Bounded Rationality
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We have discussed the theory of cultural cognition extensively on this blog in the past. One particularly interesting problem is the relationship between cultural cognition and bounded rationality.
  • Cultural cognition, in essence, posits a causal relationship between values and factual beliefs. Values are prior to beliefs. For example, people who judge drug use to be morally bad (value) are highly likely to believe that drug use is also dangerous (fact).
  • Bounded rationality makes somewhat similar claims and aims to correct some of the assumptions of rational-agent models. For example, the fact that we place greater value on something that we have just because we have it (”endowment effect”) is plainly irrational but not random. The non-randomness of certain errors in rational judgment is a significant problem for rational choice models, because the key reason for assuming rationality is not that everyone is, in fact, rational (clearly that’s not the case), but rather that rationality predicts behavior better than any alternative assumption. If there is one rational way to act and many irrational ones, and if irrational behavior is random, then rationality is the best predictor of behavior even if only a minority of people act rationally. However, if irrational behavior is not random, then the rationality assumption may be misplaced.

Cass Sunstein has argued that cultural cognition can be explained in terms of bounded rationality. Dan Kahan and Paul Slovic, in a recent paper, disagree:

In our view, Sunstein’s assertion that “bounded rationality lie[s] behind cultural cognition” merges two claims, one of which is clearly wrong … The clearly wrong claim is that one would expect persons who are boundedly rational to behave like cultural evaluators just because they are boundedly rational. It is indeed well established that people conform their factual beliefs both to the apparent view of others (through mechanisms such as “group polarization,” “reactive devaluation,” and “naïve realism”) and to their own values (through mechanisms such as “biased assimilation” and “defensive motivation”). But these dynamics don’t tell us which group commitments (professional or geographic, political or socio- economic) or which values (ideological, religious, aesthetic, etc.) will exert this impact on belief formation. They thus furnish no explanation for any particular distribution of beliefs across persons or issues, and no explanation, in particular, for why beliefs are in fact distributed in ways that express persons’ commitments to hierarchic and egalitarian, individualistic and communitarian worldviews. The most plausible way to make sense of these patterns of belief is to view culture as prior to the cognitive processes through which people perceive facts. … Bounded rationality, then, does not explain why people behave like cultural evaluators; on the contrary, the disposition of people to behave like cultural evaluators explains why established mechanisms of belief formation – social influences, biased assimilation, the availability heuristic, probability neglect, affect, etc. – generate the distinctive array of beliefs that boundedly rational people actually hold. 

I find that explanation persuasive. My concern with cultural cognition theory is not with its explanatory model but with its normative implications, at least as implied by Kahan and Slovic, who claim that in a democracy people are entitled to their values and that certain factual beliefs are in a very direct sense expressions of such values. As such, both the values and the factual beliefs are entitled to some normative weight. Nonsense, says Sunstein. Incorrect factual beliefs have no “normative weight,” even where they are expressions of values. That, in my view, is obviously correct. Truth is not about counting votes or respecting people’s values and prejudices. Truth is about underwriting factual claims with the prevailing opinions of a specialized scientific community that follows certain public procedures. I am thrilled to see that Kahan and Sovic acknowledge Sunstein’s point in that regard:

[I]f we came off sounding as if we think democracy entails respecting all culturally grounded risk perceptions, no matter how empirically misguided they might be, we overstated our position. We admit to a fair measure of ambivalence about when beliefs formed as a result of cultural cognition merit normative respect within a democratic society. 

In my view, Kahan’s and Slovic’s paper puts much of the cultural cognition v. bounded rationality debate to rest. Cultural cognition, properly stripped of certain overreaching normative implications, provides a useful explanatory backdrop to bounded rationality.

Tags: cultural cognition, bounded rationality, economics

By Hanno Kaiser, originally for #Constructivism, #Philosophy 


This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.

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