While perusing twitter this morning, I found a link to this article by Maria Konnikova, recently published in the New Yorker: The Psychology of Distrusting GMOs
As many of my readers know, I am someone who did totally change my views about GMOs. I started out very afraid of and against transgenics and biotechnology in general but as I researched, read, talked with experts, and kept an open mind, I did a complete one-eighty . I have not regretted that shift for even a moment. I am comfortable with GMOs, transgenics, biotechnology, GM crops, GM food.
As I read this article, I am reminded yet again that my experience is the exception, not the rule. Once perceptions are formed by an individual about a topic, it’s a hard sell to change them. Hard, yes. Impossible, no.
Here are a few excerpts, quotes and my own descriptions of what I got out of this very interesting article.
The following quote was made in reference to the rightness of calling a food ‘natural’ if it has been genetically modified.
The natural is what we find more familiar, while what we consider unnatural tends to be more novel—perceptually and experientially unfamiliar—and complex, meaning that more cognitive effort is required to understand it. -Robert Sternberg, pyschologist, 1982
The history of agriculture is the history of humans breeding seeds and animals to produce traits we want in our crops and livestock. -Michael Specter
The article’s author, Konnikova, describes a taste experiment that was conducted in which the same organic food was presented twice, once labeled as organic and the second time labeled as regular. Test subjects routinely rated the taste, low-calorie status and nutritional quality of the organic labeled food higher than the non-organic, when in fact, they were one in the same! This phenomenon is called the “halo effect” according to Konnikova. She defines it this way: a phenomenon whereby one positive attribute of a person or thing colors other, unrelated characteristics in a positive light.
GMOs suffer from a reverse halo effect, Konnikova writes. One attribute perceived as negative, like, say, the perceived unnaturalness of GMOs, affects the whole perception negatively. One could extrapolate and come to the conclusion, for example, that if it is not natural, it must not be safe, must be bad for the environment and so on.
The negative halo of GMOs doesn’t just affect how we feel toward them; it also impacts how we evaluate their attending risks and benefits. As early as 1979, the psychologist Paul Slovic, who has been studying our perceptions of risk since the nineteen-fifties, pointed out that, when it comes to new, unknown technologies, data always loses out to emotion […] Once an initial opinion is formed, Slovic continues, it is very difficult to shift it with new evidence: the exact same piece of information—say, additional data on the effects of GMOs on a natural ecosystem—can be interpreted in opposing ways, depending on your starting point.
Later in the article, Konnikova cites some hope. She writes:
Does that mean that GMOs will always be subject to emotionally driven instead of data-driven assessments? Not necessarily. Time is on the side of increased rationality: the longer that genetic-modification technologies are in use, the more likely we are to begin to incorporate them into our sense of the familiar. As children are born into a world where genetic modification is more widespread, they may even begin to see it as more natural—and hence, be able to judge its impact with greater objectivity.
The youngsters are the best hope. That is the opinion of S4H. They don’t take issue with GMOs the way the 35 and above do. I see this first hand with my own kids and would like to add that, at least in their case, the public education they received, science included, was more than adequate and I would classify both of them as critical thinkers. There have been countless times I have stated a belief, not just about a science topic, but any random belief, and they have challenged me about it. Could it be our education in the US is improving, at least in some places? If so, this is good news for biotechnology.
I recommend reading the full article. The author is highly credentialed and writes well (see below). It raises many more points than what I have covered here and cites specific experiments that were done with individual perceptions about GMOs,