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Speaking to the Culture: How We Can Use a Cultural Framework to Expand Science Communication

Title: How cultural evolution can inform the science of science communication—and vice versa

Author(s) and Year: Theiss Bendixen, 2020

Journal: Humanities and Social Sciences Communications (open access)

An Opportunity

Skepticism and distrust of science is becoming increasingly common in our society. Now more than ever, we need well-researched science communication strategies to combat misinformation and help people make scientifically informed decisions. However, understanding the factors that impact science communication is very difficult. The ways we portray facts, and the ways we portray them to different audiences affect the way those facts are received. We currently lack a strong framework to understand these factors.

To confront this problem, Bendixen proposes drawing from a related field: cultural evolution, the study of how cultural traits spread and change in society. (‘Cultural traits’ refers broadly to anything socially transmitted or motivated, such as behaviors, ideas, etc.) Bendixen argues that cultural evolution can aid science communication as a field by giving it the language and architecture to consider cultural elements.

The Details

In this paper, Bendixen synthesizes literature from both science communication and cultural evolution to argue for the benefits they could provide for each other. Based on his analysis, Bendixen outlines three major factors that influence science communication:

  1. content properties (the facts being conveyed),

  2. individual conditions (the values and opinions people approach these facts with), and

  3. social dynamics (the way society impacts people’s approach to these facts) (Table 1).

Table of science communication-related factors
Table 1: The three major factors from cultural evolution theory affecting science communication.

These factors have been captured in varying degrees in the science of science communication under different names (cognitive biases are commonly talked about in science communication research, and overlap significantly with individual conditions). Through extensive literature review, Bendixen argues that cultural evolution theory could provide a standard framework for understanding these factors–and that a strong understanding of all three would aid development of science communication techniques.

Content Properties

Many of the ideas behind content properties have been investigated in science communication research. The fact that certain approaches to communication work well for some topics and not others is well-understood. To add to them, Bendixen introduces the concept of “attractiveness”, the idea in cultural evolution of how quickly ideas transmit between people, such that more attractive ideas spread faster. Many things affect attractiveness, Bendixen explains, and understanding these is essential for science communicators.

For example, it’s well-understood that emotional content, especially negative emotional content, increases an idea’s attractiveness. In the case of COVID-19, this actually worked against science communicators, as the attractiveness associated with the danger of vaccines harmed efforts to convince people to get vaccinated.

Similarly, Bendixen highlights social relevance as a factor that increases an idea’s attractiveness. Conspiracy theories often rely on this. Bendixen explains that if an idea feels relevant to one’s life (like if the US government was lying about the danger associated with COVID-19), that idea becomes more attractive (in this example, to avoid unnecessary discomfort).

Bendixen suggests that understanding variances in ideas' attractiveness and the ‘content biases’ that make them attractive could help science communicators avoid triggering biases in the ways they convey information.

Individual Conditions

In contrast to content properties, individual conditions have gained less attention in science communication research, but Bendixen argues that understanding them is just as crucial to communicating ideas in a cultural space. People are less likely to believe information that contradicts their worldview, or tend to believe it less. (This is known as the backfire effect.) Though these ideas aren’t well understood, Bendixen says, they’re still useful and named in cultural evolution.

Individual conditions also offer us ways of understanding polarization. This can stem from people enjoying the company of others with similar ideas and can cause certain cultural traits to link together as ‘package deals’ (Bendixen gives the example of anti-vaccine rhetoric linked with “natural” health treatments). Science communicators can derive crucial insights from understanding these ideas, such as learning to tailor interventions to avoid challenging people’s pre-existing beliefs.

Social Dynamics

Social dynamics also greatly impact how people engage with new information. For various reasons, Bendixen says, people hold onto ideas that help ground them in their communities. These can have powerful effects, Bendixen explains–as research shows that social norms can cause people to hold onto ideas that harm them to fit in with a community.

Certain elements to social dynamics fall outside of science communication research’s current view. One such element is ‘spillover’, the phenomenon in which behavioral changes in a few individuals move to others within their community. One researcher, Dr. Charles Efferson, suggests targeting the members of a community that are least receptive to inform may cause the most effective change in a community due to the significance of spillover that can follow. This is one example of a potential communication strategy that emerged from a cultural evolution framework - and Bendixen argues that using this framework could produce even more.

The Takeaway

While Bendixen doesn’t offer a solution to the complexity of understanding cultural factors, he argues that combining cultural evolution and science communication would be beneficial in tackling that complexity for both fields. Cultural evolution can provide a new research framework and help develop new strategies for science communication to test - and science communication can grant cultural evolution the opportunity to see their ideas tested in the real world. As science communicators, we can tailor our strategies with new understandings of how to approach ideas - and we may see new best practices emerge from the intersection of these neighboring, complimentary fields.

Edited by Carolyn Decker and Niveen Abi Ghannam

Cover image credit: fauxels

Figures used under CC BY 4.0

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