Skip to main content Accessibility help

Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government



Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the ‘science comprehension thesis’ (SCT), which identifies defects in the public's knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the ‘identity-protective cognition thesis’ (ICT), which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in numeracy – a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information – did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized – and even less accurate – when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.


Corresponding author

*Correspondence to: Yale Law School, PO Box 208215, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. Email:


Hide All
Ai, C. and Norton, E. C. (2003), ‘Interaction terms in logit and probit models’, Economics Letters, 80(1): 123129.
Akerlof, G. A. and Kranton, R. E. (2000), ‘Economics and identity’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115: 715753.
Anderson, E. (1993), Value in ethics and economics, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Baron, J. (1995), ‘Myside bias in thinking about abortion’, Thinking & Reasoning, 1: 221235.
Baron, J. (2008), Thinking and deciding, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Breyer, S. G. (1993), Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chaiken, S. and Trope, Y. (1999), Dual-process theories in social psychology, New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Chen, S., Duckworth, K. and Chaiken, S. (1999), ‘Motivated Heuristic and Systematic Processing’, Psychological Inquiry, 10: 4449.
Cohen, G. L. (2003), ‘Party over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85: 808822.
Cohen, J. (1988), Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Assocs.
Cohen, J., Cohen, P., West, S. G. and Aiken, L. S. (2003), Applied Multiple Regression/Correlation Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, 3rd Edn., Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Dawson, E., Gilovich, T. and Regan, D. T. (2002), ‘Motivated Reasoning and Performance on the was on Selection Task’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28: 13791387.
Dawson, E., Gilovich, T. and Regan, D. T. (2000), Motivated Reasoning and Susceptibility to the “Cell A” Bias. Unpublished manuscript.
Dewey, J. (1910), ‘Science as Subject-Matter and as Method’, Science, 31: 121127.
Gastil, J., Braman, D., Kahan, D. and Slovic, P. (2011), ‘The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion’, PS: Political Science & Politics, 44: 711714.
Giner-Sorolla, R. and Chaiken, S. (1997), ‘Selective Use of Heuristic and Systematic Processing Under Defense Motivation’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23: 8497.
Greene, W. (2010), ‘Testing hypotheses about interaction terms in nonlinear models’, Economics Letters, 107(2): 291296.
Hamilton, L. C. (2011), ‘Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects’, Climatic Change, 104: 231242.
Hamilton, L. C., Matthew, J. and Schaefer, A. (2012), ‘Public knowledge and concern about polar-region warming’, Polar Geography, 35: 155168.
Hillman, A. L. (2010), ‘Expressive behavior in economics and politics’, European Journal of Political Economy, 26: 403418.
Jolls, C., Sunstein, C. R. and Thaler, R. (1998), ‘A Behavioral Approach to Law & Economics’, Stanford Law Review, 50: 1471.
Jost, J. T., Hennes, E. P., and Lavine, H. (2014), ‘“Hot” political cognition: Its self-, group-, and system-serving purposes’, in Carlson, D. E. (ed.), Oxford handbook of social cognition, New York: Oxford University Press.
Kahan, D. (2010), ‘Fixing the Communications Failure’, Nature, 463: 296297.
Kahan, D. M. (2015), ‘Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem’, Advances in Political Psychology, 36: 143.
Kahan, D. (2012), ‘Why we are poles apart on climate change’, Nature, 488: 255.
Kahan, D. M., Jamieson, K. H., Landrum, A. and Winneg, K. (2017), ‘Culturally antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: an experimental test’, Journal of Risk Research, 20(1): 140.
Kahan, D., Braman, D., Cohen, G., Gastil, J. and Slovic, P. (2010), ‘Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn't, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition’, Law and Human Behavior, 34: 501516.
Kahan, D. M. (2013), ‘Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection’, Judgment and Decision Making, 8: 407424.
Kahan, D. M. (2012), ‘Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk’, in Hillerbrand, R., Sandin, P., Roeser, S. & Peterson, M. (eds.) Handbook of Risk Theory: Epistemology, Decision Theory, Ethics and Social Implications of Risk, London: Springer Ltd, 725760.
Kahan, D. M. (2011), ‘The Supreme Court 2010 Term—Foreword: Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law’, Harvard Law Review, 126: 1.
Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P. and Mertz, C. K. (2007), ‘Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White-Male Effect in Risk Perception’, Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4: 465505.
Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Monahan, J., Callahan, L. and Peters, E. (2010), ‘Cultural Cognition and Public Policy: The Case of Outpatient Commitment Laws’, Law and Human Behavior, 34: 118140.
Kahan, D. M., Jenkins-Smith, H. and Braman, D. (2011), ‘Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus’, Journal of Risk Research, 14: 147174.
Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D. and Mandel, G. (2012), ‘The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks’, Nature Climate Change, 2: 732735.
Kahan, D. M., Slovic, P., Braman, D. and Gastil, J. (2006), ‘Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk’, Harvard Law Review, 119: 10711109.
Kahneman, D. (2003), ‘Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics’, American Economic Review, 93: 14491475.
Keil, F. C. (2010), ‘The Feasibility of Folk Science’, Cognitive Science, 34: 826862.
King, G., Honaker, J., Joseph, A. and Scheve, K. (2001), ‘Analyzing Incomplete Political Science Data: An Alternative Algorithm for Multiple Imputation’, American Political Science Review, 95: 4969.
King, G., Tom, M. and Wittenberg, J. (2000), ‘Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation’, American Journal of Political Science, 44: 347361.
Kunda, Z. (1990), ‘The Case for Motivated Reasoning’, Psychological Bulletin, 108: 480498.
Lavine, H., Johnston, C. D. and Steenbergen, M. R. (2012), The ambivalent partisan: how critical loyalty promotes democracy, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Lessig, L. (1995), ‘The Regulation of Social Meaning’, University of Chicago Law Review, 62: 9431045.
Liberali, J. M., Reyna, V. F., Furlan, S., Stein, L. M. and Pardo, S. T. (2012), ‘Individual Differences in Numeracy and Cognitive Reflection, with Implications for Biases and Fallacies in Probability Judgment’, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 25: 361381.
Lodge, M. and Taber, C. S. (2013), The rationalizing voter, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Loewenstein, G. F., Weber, E. U., Hsee, C. K. and Welch, N. (2001), ‘Risk as Feelings’, Psychological Bulletin, 127, 267287.
Marx, S. M., Weber, E. U., Orlove, B. S., Leiserowitz, A., Krantz, D. H., Roncoli, C. and Phillips, J. (2007), ‘Communication and mental processes: Experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information’, Global Environmental Change – Human and Policy Dimensions, 17(1): 4758.
McCaffrey, M. S. and Buhr, S. M. (2008), ‘Clarifying climate confusion: addressing systemic holes, cognitive gaps, and misconceptions through climate literacy’, Physical Geography, 29(6): 512528.
McCright, A. M. and Dunlap, R. E. (2013), ‘Bringing ideology in: the conservative white male effect on worry about environmental problems in the USA’, Journal of Risk Research, 16: 211226.
Miller, J. D. and Pardo, R. (2000), in Dierkes, M. & Grote, C.v. (eds.) Between understanding and trust: The public, science and technology, Australia: Harwood Academic, 131156.
Olson, M. (1965), The logic of collective action; public goods and the theory of groups, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pampel, F. C. (2000), Logistic regression: a primer, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Peters, E., Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., Mert, C. K., Maocco, K. and Dickert, S. (2006), ‘Numeracy and Decision Making’, Psychological Science, 17: 407413.
Powers, E. A. (2005), ‘Interpreting logit regressions with interaction terms: an application to the management turnover literature’, Journal of Corporate Finance, 11(3): 504522.
Rosenau, J. (2012), ‘Science denial: a guide for scientists’, Trends in microbiology, 20: 567569.
Rubin, D. (2004), Multiple imputation for nonresponse in surveys, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience.
Rubin, D. B. (1987), Multiple imputation for nonresponse in surveys, New York, NY: Wiley.
Sherman, D. K. and Cohen, G. L. (2006), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 38, Academic Press, 183242.
Smith, E. R. (2000), in Reis, H. T. and Judd, C. M. (eds.) Handbook of Research Methods in Social and Personality Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1739.
Stanovich, K. E. and West, R. F. (1998), ‘Who uses base rates and P (D|H)? An analysis of individual differences’, Memory & Cognition, 26: 161179.
Stanovich, K. E. and West, R. F. (2000), ‘Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate?Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23(5): 645665.
Stanovich, K. E. (2009), What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Stanovich, K. E. (2013), ‘Why humans are (sometimes) less rational than other animals: Cognitive complexity and the axioms of rational choice’, Thinking & Reasoning, 19: 126.
Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F. and Toplak, M. E. (2011), in Evans, J. S. B. T., Manktelow, K. I., Over, D. E. and Elqayam, S. eds.) The science of reason: a Festschrift for Jonathan St. B.T Evans, New York, NY: Psychology Press, 355396.
Streiner, D. L. (2003), ‘Unicorns Do Exist: A Tutorial on “Proving” the Null Hypothesis’, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48: 756761.
Sunstein, C. R. (2005), Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Sunstein, C. R. (2006), ‘Misfearing: A Reply’, Harvard Law Review, 119: 11101125.
Sunstein, C. R. (2007), ‘On the Divergent American Reactions to Terrorism and Climate Change’, Columbia Law Review, 107: 503557.
Sunstein, C. R. (2003), ‘What's Available? Social Influences and Behavioral Economics’, Northwestern University Law Review, 97.
Toplak, M., West, R. and Stanovich, K. (2011), ‘The Cognitive Reflection Test as a predictor of performance on heuristics-and-biases tasks’, Memory & Cognition, 39(7): 12751289.
Wasserman, E. A., Dorner, W. W. and Kao, S. F. (1990), ‘Contributions of Specific Cell Information to Judgments of Interevent Contingency’, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16(3): 509521.
Watts, D. J. (2011), Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails, Atlantic Books.
Weber, E. (2006), ‘Experience-Based and Description-Based Perceptions of Long-Term Risk: Why Global Warming Does Not Scare Us (yet)’, Climatic Change, 77: 103120.
Weber, E. U. and Stern, P. C. (2011), ‘Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States’, American Psychologist, 66: 315328.
Weller, J. A., Dieckmann, N. F., Tusler, M., Mertz, C., Burns, W. J. and Peters, E. (2012), ‘Development and testing of an abbreviated numeracy scale: A Rasch analysis approach’, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 26: 198212.
Westen, D., Blagov, P., Harenski, K., Kilts, C. and Hamann, S. (2006), ‘Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18: 19471958.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.