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Culture

HOW OUR BRAINS AND VALUES GASLIGHT US

My mom is an expert reasoning and logic monster. In her own mysterious and magical way, she somehow gets everyone to end up agreeing with her no matter how strongly they oppose her initially. Intentionally or not, she is able to do this through intrinsic motivation and the use of cultural cognition.

These same techniques used to convince me that the world will not crumble to pieces if I fail a midterm and can be applied to change people’s stance on just about anything. These incredible techniques, beyond getting me to do the dishes, can be used to bridge the evident political gap in America or convince people that global warming is occuring at an alarming rate despite record snowfall in parts of the US. 

The cultural cognition theory is the idea that as humans we interpret and view evidence through the lens of our personal values. Thus, in order to argue and successfully convince someone you are right, like in the case of my mother, or shift someone’s perspective on something like climate change, a compelling argument must be made that appeals to the personal values of the individual.

By appealing to a person’s morals or beliefs, their own opposing opinions begin to lose weight, because how can someone say they strongly stand for something and then go around and say something that contradicts those beliefs? Once this fundamental shift has occurred, the person feels a sense of intrinsic motivation. The same values that led them to believe in false information can lead them to the truth. 

This is not to say that you should use these techniques to your advantage for some nefarious reason. However, this will show you that whether we realize it or not, we are often influenced in ways we don’t even recognize, whether through cultural cognition, confirmation bias (selectively remembering only information that supports your stance), or cognitive dissonance (rejecting new information that opposes your view).

The way we view the world is influenced by our belief system, which is not inherently good or bad. However, America is becoming increasingly polarized, and the ability to connect or even respect people with opposing opinions is rapidly disappearing. 

This is where the importance of cultural cognition and intrinsic motivation comes in. By addressing the impact of our values on our beliefs, and by connecting people with the same values, a level of previously unfounded respect can be achieved. People can begin to understand and see people as equals rather than antagonists, creating a space where mutual respect and teamwork is possible. By appealing to these values, the ability to get through to people significantly increases.

John Marshall, a leading international expert in weather and climate addressed the issues of society’s current disbelief in science. There is a growing acceptance towards individuals simply claiming that science is made up in the same way Santa Claus is, and unsubscribing from scientific belief as a result.

In science and many other contexts, cultural cognition, intrinsic motivation, and the underlying connectedness individuals can find by reframing evidence through shared values and experiences offer a way to broaden perspectives. Turns out the very same techniques my mom employs to convince me to do the dishes can be used in a very specific setting to create a more unified world. 

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Jessica Chan

UC Berkeley '25

Jessica is a first year at UC Berkeley pursuing a major in Environmental Science and a minor in Journalism. Outside of class you'll probably find her listening to Taylor Swift, going to concerts, or dragging her friends to a museum.