The study produced two major findings. The first is that "affect," or emotion, plays a major role in people's perceptions toward nanotechnology. According to Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and president of Decision Research, "individuals' visceral reactions to nanotechnology play a bigger role in their perception of its risks and benefits than any other factor." "This is perfectly consistent," Slovic said, "with research on how people form opinions on complicated issues involving environmental and technological risks."
The second major finding of the study is that individuals' values determine their reaction to information about nanotechnology. "We exposed one group of subjects to information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, and we compared their views to those subjects who did not receive such information," explained Kahan.
"We found that when people who hold largely 'individualistic' valuesand who tend to dismiss claims that commerce and industry are dangerous and need regulationreceive information about nanotechnology, they tend to focus on the benefits. When those who hold 'egalitarian' and 'communitarian' valuesand who are relatively more community-oriented and sensitive to environmental and technological risksget the same information, they focus on the risks."
"Social psychologists call this a polarization effect," Kahan said. The study showed that political liberals and conservatives polarize, too, when exposed to information about nanotechnology. Differences also emerged between whites and African Americans.
"Based on our results, it is fair to anticipate that as nanotechnology assumes a higher profile in the media and public imagination, people's attitudes may divide along the same lines that nuclear power or climate change have," said John Gastil, professor at the University of Washington. Gastil indi
Contact: Julia Moore
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies