Cultural identity and the perception of risk

This is fascinating. Might this explain why so many white male engineer types seem, at least to me, to wildly overestimate how safe things things like nuclear power are? (1)

Individuals of diverse cultural outlooks–hierarchical and egalitarian, individualistic and communitarian–hold sharply opposed beliefs about a range of societal risks, including those associated with climate change, gun ownership, public health, and national security. Differences in these basic values exert substantially more influence over risk perceptions than does any other individual characteristic, including gender, race, socioeconomic status, education, and political ideology and party affiliation.

Why do white men fear various risks less than women and minorities? Known as the “white male effect,” this pattern is well documented but poorly understood. This paper proposes a new explanation:
identity-protective cognition. Putting work on the cultural theory of risk together with work on motivated cognition in social psychology suggests that individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their preferred form of social organization. This dynamic, it is hypothesized, drives the white male effect, which reflects the risk skepticism that hierarchical and individualistic white males display when activities integral to their cultural identities are challenged as harmful. The article presents the results of an 1,800-person study that confirmed that cultural worldviews interact with the impact of gender and race on risk perception in patterns that suggest cultural-identity-protective cognition. It also discusses the implication of these findings for risk regulation and communication.

(1) Yes, I know it’s safer than popular conception; I favor more. But to hear certain white male libertarianish types talk about it you’d think it produces power for free and can’t ever cause anything bad.

A fun thing to check would be this maps to, say, Soviet-era Russia.

I assume that it is because people are bad at understanding and assessing systemic risk. Nassum Taleb’s book “The Black Swan” deals with our incapacity to handle very significant, highly improbable events in the context of the stock market, but the same applies to nuclear power plants.

With respect to nuclear power plants, for example, there is a temptation to say that they are safe because there have been few accidents in the past. However this kind of inductive reasoning breaks down with respect to highly improbable events which nonetheless carry serious risks. The events leading to the current crisis were highly unlikely and required a cascade of failure; however, these kinds of events DO happen.

The metaphor Nassum Taleb uses is that of the Black Swan (copied from the review in Wired).

"The problem, Nassim explains, is that we place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat (diligently trying to follow the path of the “millionaire next door,” when unrepeatable chance is a better explanation). Instead, the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, which is a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe all anyone had ever seen were white swans; indeed, “all swans are white” had long been used as the standard example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Impossible to calculate, or at least they were until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia.

 Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare  and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to  explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically  useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes  are another."

The lesson to take out of this is, I think, is that we should prepare for systemic failure even if it appears to be unlikely. In the context of the stock market, for example, we should reduce systemic risk by limiting debt ratios, limiting the size of financial institutions, and so on.

That explains the baseline, but doesn’t explain the demographic gaps. The individualism and hierarchies association would explain a lot.

I’m a bit confused though. Are white males more individualistic and hierarchical (seems a bit of a contradiction in itself, but I guess I can see how it might work) than other ethno-gender groups?

And if so, how is risk, like a nuclear power plant blowing up, a threat to that? I can see it as a threat to power hierarchies, but to individualism?

Yale apparently has a related project.

According to CCP, people can be graded on two scales of cultural belief: 1) individualistic vs. communitarians, based on the importance people attach to the public good when balanced against individual rights; and 2) hierarchists vs. egalitarians, based on their views on the stratification of society. Republicans are more likely to be hierarchical-individualists, Democrats more often egalitarian-communitarian (these are not deterministic, rather tendencies on a per-issue basis). People’s views on contentious issues tend to reflect where they are on these scales. For example hierarchical-individualists tend to reject the evidence of climate change while egalitarian-communitarian tend to accept it. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures (taxation, regulation), persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation.

That nuclear thing is hilarious.

Interesting. But I’m still confused about the relation between hierarchy and individualism. Hierarchies usually entail a certain chain of command and social authorities and such. That seems incompatible with individualism, at least on the face of it. Communitarianism is the view that traditions and such matter, which seems to fit the GOP message better than individualism, at least socially. In fiscal terms, conservatives are definitely more individualistic and hierarchical. In social terms, I would say they are still hierarchical but more communitarian.

So it seems to depend on the issue, where point 1 is concerned. However, conservatives DO seem to favor hierarchy over egalitarianism.

These are tendencies and generalizations not meant to be universal claims…etc.

(1) Yes, I know it’s safer than popular conception; I favor more. But to hear certain white male libertarianish types talk about it you’d think it produces power for free and can’t ever cause anything bad.

It’s not so much that it “can’t ever cause anything bad”. It’s rather that the “bad”, when weighed against the benefits of nuclear power, as well as the “bad” of OTHER power sources, isn’t so large.

That’s the big issue, for me. Failing to develop nuclear power does not mean that the “bad” of nuclear waste is simply avoided and then you’re done.

It means the continued dependence on burning MASSIVE amounts of coal. This has a far greater, and more damaging ecological impact than nuclear power. Even in terms of radioactivity, burning coal releases far more radiation into the environment than nuclear plants.

In today’s world, those are the options. There is no magical clean option which produces the power we need, while producing no environmental waste. Even seemingly clean options which only work in certain areas, like photo-voltaic panels, tend to use extremely toxic heavy metals in their production.

It’s terrible that Japan’s recent catastrophe may be used by some to further retard nuclear development, and further prop up the existing joke of an energy infrastructure in the US. Japan’s having some major problems now… .but you know what? They were hit by a cat NINE earthquake, and then a freaking Tsunami. Even the terrible crap going on with their reactor is actually fairly trivial when compared to the fact that entire cities were wiped off the earth.

As someone who lives in a place that uses coal, I agree with this. The nuclear waste is more visible only because the media focuses on it much more. Coal burning produces all sorts of waste. Cancer rates near coal plants are probably higher than near nuclear plants. They are certainly higher than normal rates, and with nuclear plants you only get this problem if something goes wrong. With coal, it happens even when things are going right. It’s a product of successful coal burning.

Nuclear power proponents only use climate change as their fallback option now for why it’s so awesome; it’s not why they believe in it. Pre-1990s it was all about how nuclear was totally free by comparision to the other options if only those damned environmentalists would get out of the way.

I’m not arguing the relative merits, just the oddness of the incredible rhetorical delta. The very same people who supposedly hate government intervention in the market and government collective action to solve any problem will turn on a dime and advocate massive government loan guarantees for nuclear power development and its awesomeness as a problem to solving climate change, which they also simultaneously believe is a hoax.

Not to understate the environmental angle, but the pro-nuclear argument, historically, has also been very heavily weighted on removing dependence on foreign oil as well. So there’s getting the damned environmentalists out of the way as well as the damned oil interests. See: every conspiracy theory out there on electric cars.

It’s irrelevant what kind of motivations you perceive to lie behind the arguments for nuclear power. All that matters is the actual truth.

And the truth is that nuclear power offers a far cleaner source of power to the alternative, which is burning fossil fuels.

It’s ridiculous to ignore the fact that nuclear has no carbon footprint, because you think that it’s some kind of trick by people who have differing political viewpoints from you. Cutting off your nose to spite your face doesn’t benefit anyone.

“It’s difficult for a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it”, huh?
Studies like this remind me how little responsibility I have for my most strongly held beliefs.

This is just a made up argument to conveniently dismiss the arguments of anyone remotely “pro” nuclear. I’ve been green since I can remember. My dad was green. He was chasing me around the house to turn off lights, and banning aerosols, long before I had even heard of a green movement. I would love for Europe to be carbon free.

However, like my father it’s a practical view, not an ideological one. I have voted green before, but I often disagree with their government heavy policies. I want clean air and energy independence, but I don’t share a fear of nuclear power and that has often put me at odds with my many green friends. That doesn’t mean I like nuclear power, but I see that to have a modern, energy dependent world, we need to consider all the options.

The risk assessment of nuclear power among the general public doesn’t match the facts, as can be seen in Germany right now where the anti-nuclear movement is riding the media hysteria over Japan, even though Germany would never suffer the same kind of cataclysmic disasters that strike Japan with regularity. “No Fukushima here” said one of the signs. Well no, you won’t get a planet moving earthquake in Germany, so what is the protest about again?

The fear of nuclear power is really, really bad for the green movement. Focusing on nuclear plants and getting them cancelled or closed down won’t result in fields filled with wind turbines. Instead you will get lots of ugly, smoking, coal burning plants instead. Because while the green movement opposes those too, it’s much harder to get the public roused about them. So governments will turn to these instead if the public support for nuclear power disappears. This is what will happen in Germany. This is what will happen in China.

What the Green movement should be doing is focusing all their energies on dirty plants, not nuclear. But nuclear is an easy, vote winning, target. As can be seen from the success of the Green Party in Germany today.

“No Fukushima here” said one of the signs. Well no, you won’t get a planet moving earthquake in Germany, so what is the protest about again?

You’re doing what you complained Jason was doing – misrepresenting the opposition. They’re concerned about systemic failure in general, not the specific failure of an 8.0 earthquake and 10m tidalwave.

They are using an event that has no chance of occurring in Germany to push an agenda. There’s no misrepresentation there.

But they are using the analogy of Fukushima to try to push that agenda. It’s a weak analogy though, because the issues that led to that failure can’t happen in Germany. What systemic failure concerns could they have instead? If they are legit, why compare it to Fukushima, which is completely unrelated to Germany’s nuclear plants?

It is objectively a lot harder to gin up a failure scenario in an area that isn’t prone to powerful natural disasters.

It was masochistic to the point of pointlessness trying to be green and pro-nuclear before the Japanese disaster, just fighting the bogeyman of, of all things, Three Mile Island. Fukashima will be a much, much better bogeyman, particularly since systemic risk was the least silly part of the anti-nuclear argument - if rarely its centrepiece, let’s be honest.

The problems with nuclear in practical purposes were economic and political; they’re not cheap, and waste disposal is the NIMBY mess of all NIMBY messes.

With all of that said I think there is something to the original post idea about “pro-nuclear white male engineer types,” although there’s a real risk of correlation and causation being mixed up. White males are also disproportionately conservative, sadly, and nuclear enthusiasts are disproportionately conservative also.

Greens are different! I’m talking about the almost-entirely-US techno-fetishist mostly-libertarian/conservative types that have been shilling nuclear power since the 1950s.

I’m not disagreeing with you; I’m all for replacing the entire power grid with nuclear where its the most cost-efficient. I’m just baffled by the people I’m talking about because I can’t wrap my head around their worldview. Christians, by contrast, I understand.

But what is hard to understand?
I’m actually generally pro-ecology, despite it not being a traditionally conservative position.

When it comes to nuclear power, it’s a good option for power generation. Here in PA, we’ve got a lot of nuclear plants, and we’ve got a lot of coal… I fly over Three Mile Island every time I go through Harrisburg, and I’ve also seen the effects of coal mining first hand. Go to centralia, where a coal fire has been burning underground for 50 some years… or anywhere in eastern PA, where sinkholes are widespread from underground erosion of mineshafts. If you think the housing market collapsing hurts the value of your home, try selling a house with a sinkhole on the property. When comparing the two, from my perspective nuclear wins, hands down.

It’s sad that people associate nuclear power, an extremely mature power generation technology, with a political movement… and then use that association to discount the technology. There’s nothing “conservative” about nuclear power.

That seems like a leap. Nuclear power support and conservatism correlate meaningfully, but I’ve rarely/never heard of nuclear power being attacked on the grounds of “conservatives liking it.”