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“Cultural cognition” refers to the unconscious influence of individuals’ group commitments on their perceptions of legally consequential facts. We conducted an experiment to assess the impact of cultural cognition on perceptions of facts relevant to distinguishing constitutionally protected “speech” from unprotected “conduct.” Study subjects viewed a video of a political demonstration. Half the subjects believed that the demonstrators were protesting abortion outside of an abortion clinic, and the other half that the demonstrators were protesting the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy outside a campus recruitment facility. Subjects of opposing cultural outlooks who were assigned to the same experimental condition (and who thus had the same belief about the nature of the protest) disagreed sharply on key “facts” – including whether the protesters obstructed and threatened pedestrians. Subjects also disagreed sharply with those who shared their cultural outlooks but who were assigned to the opposing experimental condition (and hence had a different belief about the nature of the protest). These results supported the study hypotheses about how cultural cognition would affect perceptions pertinent to the “speech”-“conduct” distinction. We discuss the significance of the results for constitutional law and liberal principles of self-governance generally.


Cultural cognition, First Amendment, speech, conduct, empirical studies

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Stanford Law Review

Publication Citation

64 Stan. L. Rev. 851 (2012)