The Self-Defensive Cognition of Self-Defense

Dan M. Kahan, Yale Law School
Donald Braman, GWU Law School


Why do certain self-defense cases—ones, e.g., involving battered women who kill their sleeping abusers, or beleaguered commuters who shoot panhandling minority teens—provoke intense political conflict? The conventional and seemingly obvious answer is that people judge such cases in a politically partisan fashion. This paper, however, suggests a more complicated explanation. Social psychologists have shown that individuals resolve factual ambiguities in a manner supportive of their defining values, both to minimize dissonance and to protect their connection to others who share their commitments. This form of self-defensive cognition, it is submitted, shapes individuals’ perceptions of violent interactions between parties seen to be complying with or defying contested social norms. As a result, even individuals who are trying to decide such cases based on honest and politically impartial assessments of the facts polarize along cultural lines. The paper presents the results of an original empirical study (N = 1500) that supports this hypothesis. It also explores the normative significance of this account of the origins of political conflict over self-defense cases and how such conflict can be mitigated.