The Situationist

Archive for April 4th, 2007

Emotions, Values, and Information: The Future of Nanotechnology

Posted by Dan Kahan on April 4, 2007

dummies1.jpgDo you know very much about nanotechnology? Which do you think will predominate — its benefits or its risks?

If you either answered “yes” to the first question, or assumed answering “no” disqualified you from offering an opinion on the second, you are unusual. We (Paul Slovic, Don Braman, John Gastil, Geoffrey Cohen and I), recently did a national study of nanotechnology risk perceptions. We discovered that although 80% of our subjects reported having heard “little” or “nothing” about nanotechnology, 90% of them (without being supplied any additional information) still had a view one way or the other on whether it was on net risky or beneficial.

But in truth, that result didn’t surprise us. It’s well known that people form rapid, intuitive judgments about even unfamiliar risks. Our primary goal in the study was to find out on what basis they would form such judgments toward nanotechnology and, even more significant, how their views would be influenced by the provision of information about this novel science.

What we discovered convinced us that nanotechnology is an emotionally charged topic that is poised to generate exactly the sort of political conflict that has historically attended nuclear power and today characterizes global warming.

The study involved a demographically diverse sample of 1,850 persons. In addition to our subjects’ views of nanotechnology risks and benefits, we also collected data on various individual characteristics that we hypothesized might explain those views.

regression_affect2.gifThe study (the results of which are set forth more completely in a working paper) generated two principle findings. The first is that existing reactions to nanotechnology are affect driven. The sign (positive or negative) and intensity of subjects’ visceral or emotional reactions toward nanotechnology explained eight times as much of the variance in their perceptions of its risks as did either gender or race. The impact of affect was approximately seven times larger than the impact of confidence in government to regulate risks effectively, six times larger than the impact of education, and four times larger than the impact of perception of other environmental risks. The next biggest influence — how much subjects reported knowing about nanotechnology before the study — was less than half that of affect.

This finding, of course, begs the question, What explains variance in affect? A variety of things, we found, but among the strongest predictors of our subjects’ affective response to nanotechnology was their perceptions of other environmental risks, such as nuclear power and global warming. In sum, the subjects in our study seemed to have a gut reaction to nanotechnology, a relatively novel risk, that was informed by their attitudes toward more familiar environmental dangers.

balancedinfo.gifThe second major finding had to do with what happens when individuals learn more about nanotechnology. To address this issue, we divided our sample into two and furnished one with additional information about nanotechnology before eliciting their views. That information consisted of two, relatively short paragraphs, one setting forth potential benefits of nanotechnology and other potential risks. We then compared the views of subjects who received this information to those who didn’t receive any.

Overall, there was no difference in the views of our “no information” and our “information exposed” subjects on the relative risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Again, perfectly predictable, given the balanced nature of the information we supplied.

But when we examined the views of subgroups of respondents defined with reference to their values, we discovered something much more interesting: polarization of our subjects along cultural and ideological lines.

The theory of “cultural cognition” posits that individuals process information in a way that reflects and reinforces their general preferences about how society should be organized. Egalitarians and communitarians, for example, tend to be sensitive to claims of environmental and technological risks because abating such dangers justifies regulating commercial activities that generate inequality and legitimize unconstrained pursuit of self-interest. Individualists, in contrast, tend to be skeptical about such risks, in line with their concern to ward off contraction of the sphere of individual initiative. So do hierarchists, who tend to see assertions of environmental technological risks as challenging the competence of governmental and social elites.We evaluated our subjects’ worldviews using scales that correspond to these cultural worldviews.

In our “no information” condition, hierarchists and egalitarians, individualists and communitarians all had roughly comparable perceptions of culture_pol.gifnanotechnology risks. However, in the “information exposure” condition, subjects adopted toward nanotechnology the clashing positions persons with their respective worldviews take on environmental risks generally.

Exposure to information also seemed to excite recognizable ideological divisions. Liberals, who held a slightly more positive view of nanotechnology among the subjects in the “no information” condition, actually traded places with conservatives in the “information exposure” conduction, assuming a stance of risk concern more characteristic of their ideology.

In sum, values operated as a powerful heuristic for our subjects. Confronted with balanced competing arguments about a novel risk, they assigned more weight to the position that best fit their general cultural and political predispositions.

Does this mean that public deliberations on nanotechnology will be plagued by division and acrimony? That’s certainly a possibility. In particular, it certainly can’t be assumed that the discovery of scientifically accurate information about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology will of its own force generate societal consensus on whether and how its development should be regulated: as they do on many well-known risks — from climate change to nuclear power to handgun possession to terrorism — people with different values are predisposed to draw different factual conclusions from the same information. If anything, the polarization effects we observed in our study could be even larger in the real world, where individuals are likely to select information sources that fit their values and that supply them with information systematically skewed toward one position or other.

But I, at least, don’t think such polarization on nanotechnology is inevitable. At the same time that the study of cultural cognition is generating insights into how values shape individuals’ processing of information, it is also teaching us lessons (ones I will describe in future posts) about how information can be framed so that persons of diverse cultural views can get the same factual content from it. That obviously doesn’t mean those persons all reach the same conclusions on how to balance the risks and benefits of nanotechnology or other forms of science. But it does mean that their deliberations will be informed by the best understandings available of what those risks and benefits are — a condition they would presumably all agree is essential to enlightened democratic regulation of risk.

The bottom line is that those who favor informed public deliberation about nanotechnology should be neither sanguine nor bleak. Instead, they should be psychologically realistic. And if they are, they will see the urgent need for additional efforts to develop risk-communication strategies that make it possible for culturally diverse citizens to converge on policies that promote their common interests.

Posted in Cultural Cognition, Emotions, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 6 Comments »

UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies Conference

Posted by Jerry Kang on April 4, 2007

On April 13-14, the UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies Program will be hosting its Inaugural Symposium titled “Mapping the Movement Across Disciplines.” On Saturday, the 14th, there will be a panel that may be of interst to Situationist readers on “Unconscious Racism and Implicit Bias.”

  • Prof. Charles Lawrence, Georgetown Law Center
  • Dr. Kristin Lane, PhD (from the Mahzarin Banaji lab, Situationist contributor)
  • Prof. Linda Hamilton Krieger, Boalt Hall (Situationist contributor)
  • Prof. Gerald Lopez, NYU Law (Visiting Prof., UCLA Law)
  • moderated by me, Prof. Jerry Kang, UCLA Law (Situationist contributor)

More information is available at the conference website.

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 4, 2007


In 1992, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky demonstrated the effect of “irrelevant third options” in a simple experiment in which subjects were asked to select a microwave oven based on various product features and prices. Most of the subjects given a choice only between a low-priced Emerson and a medium-priced Panasonic preferred the Emerson model. When a high-priced Panasonic model was added to the selection, however, most of the subjects selected the medium-priced Panasonic, thus dramaticallygas-station-prices.jpg increasing Panasonic’s share of the experimental market. It is folk wisdom in the restaurant industry that every dessert menu should have at least one excessively indulgent item to make the others appear comparatively less indulgent. Similarly gas stations, it seems, are likely encouraging consumers to purchase mid-grade gasoline by including high-grade option.

More recently, Situationist contributor Paul Slovic has shown how this phenomenon, among many others, reflects what he calls the “affect heuristic” or the “risk as feelings” approach to risk perception. (For an overview of that research, click here.)

It is now well understood that adding options can alter behavior, even when the options are not chosen. Seemingly irrelevant options can actually be quite relevant because they change the situation and alter affective responses to existing options.

Yesterday’s Washington Post contains an article by Shankar Vedantam relying on those insight to discuss presidential campaign strategies. We have excerpted portions of that editorial below.

* * *

clinton-obama.jpgIf Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ever took a break from fundraising to bone up on psychology, they might realize the need to talk up . . . John Edwards.

The same goes for front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. They ought to be drawing attention to Mitt Romney, or to “Law and Order” star Fred Thompson, who could be running third in the race if he declared.

Front-runners are usually focused on racing each other. They often do not realize that when people cannot decide between two leading candidates — and it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about politicians or consumer appliances — our decision can be subtly swayed by whoever is in third place.

Psychologists call this the decoy effect: In a perfectly rational world, third candidates should only siphon votes away from one or both of the leading contenders. Under no circumstances should they cause the vote share of either front-runner to increase. In the actual world, however, third candidates regularly have the unintended effect of making one of the front-runners look better than before in the minds of undecided voters.

* * *

john-edwards.jpgLet’s say you are a centrist Democratic voter who cannot decide between Clinton and Obama because you want a candidate who is strong on national security but also someone fresh. You like Clinton on one measure and Obama on the other. Enter Edwards, whom you see as more dovish than Obama but part of the same establishment as Clinton. Obama looks better than Edwards on both counts, whereas Clinton beats Edwards on only the national security issue.

On the other hand, let’s say you care about experience but are wary of policies such as universal health care. You like Clinton’s experience but are worried about her track record on health care. Enter Edwards, whom you perceive to be as untested as Obama but even more likely to pursue a traditionally liberal agenda. Clinton now looks better than Edwards on both counts.

What this means is that Obama and Clinton stand to gain by drawing attention to those qualities of Edwards’s that make each front-runner look much better than the other. Clever front-runners, in other words, can turn third candidates into their wingmen.

“Many people lavished hate on Ralph Nader for presumably taking votes away from the Democratic front-runner in the 2000 presidential election,” said Scott Highhouse, who has studied the decoy effect at Bowling Green State University. “Research on the decoytime-cover-perot.jpg effect suggests that Nader’s presence, rather than taking votes away, probably increased the share of votes for the candidate he most resembled.”

Suzanne Fogel, head of the marketing department at DePaul University, conducted a study of the 1992 presidential election, where Ross Perot provided the psychologist with a third candidate and a national laboratory. She and colleagues Yigang Pan and Robert Pitts found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom about which candidate Perot would hurt, undecided voters who focused on different qualities of Perot tended to gravitate toward George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

“People are not very thorough information processors,” she said. “People try to distill the essence from things, and if someone calls attention to one attribute or another, you make your choice based on that attribute because it is in the foreground of your attention.”

* * *

For the complete article, click here.  To read Michael Metzler’s interesting take on how the the third-option effect might be employed to sell religions or denominations, go to Pooh’s Think.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions | 7 Comments »

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