When archetypes become stereotypes…

by Jen

What happens when you ask people who have become at least somewhat familiar with cultural cognition to take a stab at personifying the four cultural worldviews along the group/grid map? Well, if you ask the people who study cultural cognition for a living, they will give you answers like these:

(from Dan Kahan)

What you are asking about here is complicated; I’m anxious to avoid a simple response that might not be clearly understood as very very simplified.

(from Donald Braman)

There clearly aren’t just four types of people out there, but the signals we send to each other about who we are and the values we affiliate ourselves with does a lot of work for us.  If those signals were too esoteric and diverse, they wouldn’t do us much good.  So people develop a sort of social shorthand about the kinds of things that make sense to us and how they cohere, and we signal to each other with those commitments. Various issues become a kind of currency of social identity and a short-cut to both trust and coordinating action.
What follows that any construction of “types” and “beliefs” will be contingent on the historical moment and the cultural conflicts that inform it. We do our best to capture a the major values inform identity, conflict, and factual belief in this time and place in two cross-cutting dimensions, but one could come up with fewer or more and tell another plausible story.  We hope we hit a sweet spot balancing simplicity and explanatory power in the dimensions and measures we use.  But the star of the show isn’t a typology derived from those value-dimensions, it’s the fundamental social-cognitive link between values and factual beliefs in setting after setting.

In other words, the social scientists are hesitant to provide stereotypical qualities, and for very good reason. Cultural cognition isn’t a typology, it’s a mechanism. People don’t fall neatly into the four ‘quadrants’ like four neatly defined personality types; they hold values and develop worldviews that shape how people interpret information and make decisions. That said, I always find it worthwhile to prod a bit, even when it means venturing into the overly simplified or overly unrealistic or overly absurd- as part of a good design practice. Sometimes creating a very, very low resolution picture of something is the only way to get a mental picture at all- we can always fill in the fine grain details moving forward. It also helps people who are trying to understand something for the first time to see distinct boundaries- even if reality shows those boundaries are not distinct (or even real) on closer inspection.

Meanwhile, if you ask a handful of designers who have also become somewhat familiar with cultural cognition to do the same thing, (to personify the four ends of the cultural cognition value scales), you get an entirely different outcome: they push archetypes into stereotypes, and then push those stereotypes as far as they’ll go, into the land of the almost uselessly absurd, (all the while acknowledging- nay, constantly repeating- that none of these stereotypes are realistic in their simplicity).

Of course, this is just an exercise. None of the results are to be taken as anything but an exploration of perceptions about values. But, it’s certainly interesting to ask how the different group/grid values (individualist, communitarian, hierarchical, egalitarian) manifest in people, real vs. imagined, based on those perceptions. Here’s what you get:

photo 2

Yes, we’ve determined Godzilla is an egalitarian-individualist. And yes, Robin Hood is probably misplaced… where do you think he belongs?


By the way, I should point out that both Kahan and Braman were very helpful in their (much longer) responses- they’ve been instrumental in my ever-developing mental model of cultural cognition and its potential as a teaching tool for science communicators. Kahan has also just posed this question on his own blog, and I’m looking forward to the responses.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth explanation of just what I’m aiming to actually do with this kind of exercise…