Researchers turned to cultural filter theory because psychological and other filters could not adequately explain differences in responses to communications by social and cultural groups.

Researchers focused on psychological filters are primarily interested in the subjective and emotional factors that influence communications about risks and threats.

But researchers focused on cultural filters are primarily interested in the social, organizational, ethnic, social network, and group factors that influence messages about risks and threats.

Basis for Cultural Theory of Risk Perceptions

The cultural theory of risk perceptions is based on several assumptions:

First, risks and threats to humans and the things humans value abound in the world.

Second, humans can take actions to control, reduce, or eliminate risks and threats.

Third, before actions can be taken to control, reduce, or eliminate a risk or threat, people need to decide which risks and threats are important, which risks and threats can be safely ignored, and which risks and threats are acceptable.

Fourth, societal consensus is often lacking on which risks and threats are of concern. Some groups may decide certain risks and threats—such as the risks of nuclear power, genetically engineered organisms, childhood vaccination, and the release of gases that affect climate—are tolerable, acceptable, and moral. Other groups may decide the same risks and threats are intolerable, unacceptable, and immoral.

Fifth, the lack of group consensus about what risks and threats are tolerable, acceptable, and moral can result in strong emotional reactions and conflict.

Sixth, what is perceived as a risk and threat is largely a social construct stemming primarily from social and cultural factors. Perceived risks and threats should not be taken only at their face value: they are in large part a reflection of deeper cultural norms, values, policies, or institutions.

Seventh, people are deeply embedded in conscious and unconscious culture and societal structures that profoundly shape their values, attitudes, worldviews, and perceptions.

Goal of Cultural Filter and Theory Research

The primary goal of cultural filter and theory research is to uncover (1) how particular risks and threats come to be selected for societal attention and action; and (2) how groups, communities, and societies decide what should be done in response to risks and threats.

According to cultural filter theory, every culture has its own distinctive portfolio of risks and threats believed to be worthy of concern. Every culture highlights some risks and threats and downplays others.

Every culture adopts methods for reducing, controlling, or eliminating risks and threats. Risks and threats are exaggerated or minimized according to the social and cultural acceptability of the underlying activities.

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

More information about cultural filter theory can be found in module eight of Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication. This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.

More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, speaker, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.


See, e.g., Covello, V., & Johnson, B. (1987). The social and cultural construction of risk: Issues, methods, and case studies. Johnson, B., & Covello, V., eds., The Social and Cultural Construction of Risk. New York: Springer; Rayner, S. (1992). Cultural theory and risk analysis. Social Theories of Risk. Westport, CT: Praeger; Wildavsky, A., & Dake, K. (1990). Theories of risk perception: Who fears what and why? Daedalus 4, pp. 41–60; Douglas, M., & Wildavsky, A. (1983). Risk and Culture: An Essay on Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press; Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Gross, R., & Rayner, S. (1985). Measuring Culture: A Paradigm for the Analysis of Social Organization. New York: Columbia University Press; Sederberg, P. (1984). The Politics of Meaning: Power and Explanation in the Construction of Social Reality. Tucson: University of Arizona Press; Dake, K. (1991).Orienting dispositions in the perception of risk: An analysis of contemporary worldviews and cultural biases, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 22:61–82; Dake, K. (1992). Myths of nature—culture and the social construction of risk. Journal of Social Issues 4: 21–37; Coughlin, R., Lockhart, C. (1998).Grid group theory and political ideology. A consideration of their relative strengths and weaknesses for explaining the structure of mass belie systems. Journal of Theoretical Politics 10: 33–58; Rippl, D. (2002). Cultural theory and risk perception: A proposal for a better measurement. Journal of Risk Research 5 (2) pp. 147–165.

Douglas, M., & Wildavsky, A. (1983). Risk and Culture: An Essay on Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


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