“So — is expert decisionmaking subject to cultural cognition? “

December 19th, 2011

Yes. And No.

Yes, because to start, experts use processes akin to cultural cognition to reason about the matters on which they are experts. Those processes reflect sensitivity to cues that individuals use to orient themselves within groups they depend on for access to reliable information; they are built into the capacity to figure out whom to trust about what.

What is different about experts and lay people in this regard — what makes the former experts  — is only the domain-specificity of the sensibilities that the expert has acquired in his or her area of expertise, which allow the expert to form an even more reliable apprehension of the content of shared knowledge within his or her group of experts.

The basis of this conjecture is an account of how professionalization works — as a process that endows practitioners with bridges of meaning across which they transmit shared prototypes to one another that help them to recognize what is true, appropriate & so forth. My favorite account of this is Margolis’s inPatterns, Thinking, and Cognition. Llewellyn called this kind of professional insight as enjoyed by lawers & judges “situation sense.”

Maybe, then, we should think of this a kind of professional cultural cognition. Obviously, when experts use it,  they are not likely to make mistakes or to fall into conflict. On the contrary, it is by virtue of being able to use this professional cultural cognition — professional habits of mind, in Margolis’s words –that they are able reliably to converge on expert understanding.

Now a bit of No: Experts when they are making expert judgments in this way are not using cultural cognition of the sort that nonexpert lay people are using in our studies. Cultural cognition in this sense is a recognition capacity — made up of prototypes and bridges of meaning — that ordinary people who share a way of life use to access and transmit common knowledge. One of things they use it for is to apprehend the state of expert knowledge in one or another domain; lay people have to use their “cultural situation sense” for that precisely b/c they don’t have the experts’ professional cultural cognition.

Still, laypersons’ cultural situation sense doesn’t usually lead to error or conflict either. Ordinary peopleare experts at figuring out who the experts are and what it is that they know; if ordinary people weren’t good at that, they would lead miserable lives, as would the experts.

When lay people do end up in persistent disagreement with experts, though, the reason might well be incommensurabilities in their respective systems of cultural cognition. In that case, the two of them — experts and lay people — both lack access to the common bridges of meaning that would allow what experts or professionals see w/ their prototypes to assume a form recognizable in the public’s eye as a marker of expert insight. This is another Margolis-based conjecture, one I take from his classic Dealing with Risk: Why the Public and Experts Disagree on Environmental Issues.

From Dan Kahan:

So on that basis, I would conjecture that experts — scientific & professional ones — will sometimes err, and likely fall into conflict, in making judgments in their own domains when some influence interefers with their professional cultural cognition, & they lapse, no doubt unconsciously, into reliance on their nonexpert cultural cognition.

And this is interesting about judging:

The work of Rachlinski, Wistrich & Gutherie, e.g., suggests this: they find that judges show admirable resistance to familiar cognitive errors, but only when they are doing tasks that are akin to judging, which is to say, only when they are using their domain-specific situation sense for what it is meant for.

But Rachlinski, Wistrich & Gutherie also have shown that judges can be expected systematically to err in judging tasks, too, when something in their decisionmaking environment distorts or turns off their professional habits of mind.