Cultural Cognition and Bias in Information Transmission

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Hunzaker, Mary Beth Fallin


Vaisey, Stephen

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Cultural transmission processes are not well understood within the field of sociology. Popular models both in cultural and network sociology tend to conceptualize transmission as simple replication, with limited research devoted to examining what systematic changes information tends to undergo as it is transmitted. By contrast, empirical cultural transmission research in psychology shows that information tends to be altered to become more consistent with cultural biases as it is shared. Understanding this consistency bias is important for understanding how cultures are reproduced, because biased transmission increases individuals’ likelihood of receiving information that reaffirms cultural biases, while impeding the spread of information that might challenge such biases. In this dissertation, I investigate different aspects of schema-consistency bias and its impact on information transmission in three empirical studies.

Chapter 2 examines how schema-consistency biases in information transmission and social psychological legitimation processes combine to perpetuate negative stereotypes about the poor. Results of a serial transmission experiment demonstrate that participants used more negative-stereotype consistent material when retelling a story about a main character that experiences a negative outcome (financial instability and unemployment) compared to a positive one (receiving training and gaining employment) following a job loss. These results demonstrate one way systematic errors in information transmission reproduce cultural biases, as individuals draw on negative stereotypes to justify misfortunes experienced by disadvantaged others.

Chapter 3 builds on the work described in Chapter 2, combining insights from the cultural cognition, affect control theory, and cultural transmission frameworks in a new serial transmission study. While previous serial transmission studies have relied on informal stereotype-based measures of cultural schema-consistency, in this study I demonstrate that affect control theory’s measure of deflection provides a formal, theory-based measure of information’s cultural schema-consistency. Further, results show that this measure is predictive of the information people share in communication: while culturally inconsistent, high-deflection information experiences an initial boost in memorability, participants ultimately tend to transform this information to increase its consistency with cultural schemas.

Chapter 4 also focuses on the issue of measuring culture. In this study, I develop a new concept-association-based method for collecting schema data from individuals, as well as a corresponding conceptual association network measure of cultural schemas, using differences between liberal and conservative schemas of poverty in the United States as a test case. Study results show that concept network representations of liberal and conservative schemas of poverty are characterized by large overlaps, punctuated by a few salient differences in terms of associations related to individual (e.g.- laziness, dishonesty) vs structural (e.g.- lacking government safety nets, racism) concepts. I find that these partisan differences in poverty schemas, when internalized by individuals, are predictive of differences in policy preferences regarding government aid spending.

Taken together, these studies aim to advance current debates about measuring culture and about the cognitive and social psychological mechanisms underpinning cultural processes. Specifically, the ultimate goal of this research is to better understand information transmission as a mechanism that connects micro-level cognitive and social psychological processes to larger scale cultural phenomena.






Hunzaker, Mary Beth Fallin (2017). Cultural Cognition and Bias in Information Transmission. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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