Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Trusting their gut: More evidence on emotional responses to nanotechnology

Dan Kahan at Yale and his colleagues just released a working paper with first results from a recent online experiment on nanotech attitudes. And their results confirm a lot of the findings from recent systematic survey-based research about how the public makes sense of nanotechnology:

First, Kahan et al. highlight the importance of emotional or gut reactions to nanotech, rather than well-reasoned cognitive responses. This fits in nicely with a a piece Chul-joo Lee at Penn and I have forthcoming in the next issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. Emotional reactions to nanotechnology, we show, are most pronounced among television viewers (as opposed to newspaper audiences, for instance). And part of the explanation lies in the episodic nature of television coverage and the relative absence of scientific information in news.

(For more information, see Lee, C., & Scheufele, D. A. (forthcoming). The influence of knowledge and deference toward scientific authority: A media effects model for public attitudes toward nanotechnology. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.)

Second, Kanahan and his colleagues once again highlight the importance of predispositional variables for making sense of emerging technologies. Matt Nisbet wrote about this back in 2005 (Nisbet, M. C. 2005. The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for stem cell research. International Journal Of Public Opinion Research, 17(1), 90-112.), and we will be presenting a study exploring the moderating role of knowledge and religiosity on risk/benefits perceptions about nanotechnology at the upcoming meeting of the International Communication Association in San Francisco this May.

Brossard, D., Kim, E., & Scheufele, D. A. (2007, May). The Politics of science: Communication and opinion formation about scientific issues and policies. Paper presented to the annual convention of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA.

While the Kanahan et al. working paper does not necessarily offer new insights, it provides a nice summary of some of the larger issues surrounding public decision making about nanotech. Here is more information about the full release:
Dan M. Kanahan et al. (2007). Affect, Values, and Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: an Experimental Investigation. Unpublished working paper.


Despite knowing little about nanotechnology (so to speak), members of the public readily form opinions on whether its potential risks outweigh its potential benefits. On what basis are they forming their judgments? How are their views likely to evolve as they become exposed to more information about this novel science? We conducted a survey experiment (N = 1,850) to answer these questions. We found that public perceptions of nanotechnology risks, like public perceptions of societal risks generally, are largely affect driven: individuals' visceral reactions to nanotechnology (ones likely based on attitudes toward environmental risks generally) explain more of the variance in individuals' perceptions of nanotechnology's risks and benefits than does any other influence. These views are not static: even a small amount of information can generate changes in perceptions. But how those perceptions change depends heavily on individuals' values. Using a between-subjects design, we found that individuals exposed to balanced information polarize along cultural and political lines relative to individuals not exposed to information. We discuss what these findings imply for understanding of risk perceptions generally and for the future of nanotechnology as a subject of political conflict and regulation.