Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White-Male Effect in Risk Perception



This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Erratum Volume 5, Issue 3, 645, Article first published online: 5 September 2008

  • Research for this article was funded by National Science Foundation Grant SES-0242106. We are grateful to Paul von Hippel for advice on data imputation; to Geoffrey Cohen for comments on an earlier draft; and to John Darley, Don Green, Paul Sniderman, and Christopher Winship for their invaluable guidance as members of our study advisory panel. Most of all, we are indebted to the late Mary Douglas for inspiration and for supportive, albeit often painfully direct, counsel on our research methods.

*Dan M. Kahan, Yale Law School, PO Box 208215, New Haven, CT 06520; email: Kahan is at Yale Law School; Braman is at George Washington Law School; Gastil is at the University of Washington, Department of Communications; Slovic is at the University of Oregon, Department of Psychology, and Decision Research; Mertz is with Decision Research.


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 article 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 cultural identities. 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 implications of these findings for risk regulation and communication.