How we perceive the risk of GMOs

Psychology can teach us much about why many people fear GM foods, writes David Ropeik. Illustrations by Gregory Roberts

Gregory Roberts

Imagine you’re at a coffee shop, and at the next table two people are arguing about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One, a young man, adamantly opposes them, convinced they pose all sorts of risks to people and the environment.

The other person, a man in his 40s, supports GMOs, arguing there is no risk and that genetically modified food offers huge benefits, such as making crops more resistant to disease and pests. Both men sound intelligent and knowledgeable, so you listen in to see if you can learn a bit more about the facts. But pretty quickly you start paying attention to something else.

The two men sound angry. Their voices are loud, and getting louder. Their cheeks are flushed. They’re interrupting each other with, “Yeah, but…” and “that’s not true…” and “it’s just irrational to deny what all the experts say!”And while the person who supports GMOs is talking about how something called Golden Rice and other biotech crops can improve health and save lives, the younger man keeps talking about Monsanto and big corporations, and government, and about his mistrust of anybody who has anything positive to say about the genetic modification of food.

You think to yourself, “This argument isn’t going to resolve anything. They’re not listening to each other. They’ve already made up their minds. This isn’t about GMOs. It’s about something way deeper than that”. You start to listen, not to learn about the science of GMOs but to see if you can figure out the psychology of what’s going on: why two seemingly intelligent people can have such different and such strongly held views about essentially the same evidence.

Gregory Roberts

You are right, of course. That argument about GMOs isn’t really about the facts, any more than the argument about whether climate change is real, or whether vaccines cause autism. The facts on all three are pretty clear. The world’s leading science panels agree that the evidence is overwhelming that GMOs pose no known risk to humans, that climate change caused by human activity is real, and that vaccines don’t cause autism. Yet some people, such as our intelligent, angry young man, continue to deny all the evidence and fear GMOs. Why? And why are his passions so highly aroused?

The feelings are so fierce because it turns out that the way we perceive risk is much more about those feelings than the facts alone. Research into human cognition and risk perception psychology has found that, in essence, US journalist Ambrose Bierce was right when he said in The Devil’s Dictionary, the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. To be blunt: we are not as smart as we think we are. “Reason,” as Sophocles observed, may be “God’s crowning gift to man”, but this kilogram and a half of neural tissue in your cranium aren’t there to get good grades and win Nobel prizes. The brain is first and foremost in charge of keeping us alive and it uses everything it can to figure out whether something might pose a risk, including not only conscious reasoning but all the subconscious animal instincts we have evolved to make quick protective judgments about whether something feels scary. Many of those instincts have been identified, and several of them help explain why that angry young man
in the coffee shop is so afraid of GMOs.

One of them is what Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others call the “representativeness heuristic”. (Heuristics, like biases, are essentially mental shortcuts we use to quickly make sense of information and turn it into the judgments and decisions we have to make, on the fly, all the time.) Here’s how representativeness works. Let’s say that in a couple of minutes a professional athlete will walk into the room and join you. Will that athlete be bigger than you, the same size, or smaller?

This argument isn’t going to resolve anything. They’re not
listening to each other. They’ve already made up their minds.

If you’re like most people, you probably guessed bigger. But, with so little information, how did you come up with that guess? You used the “representativeness” heuristic. You had two clues, “athlete” and “professional”, and without even consciously thinking about it, your brain searched the filing cabinets of what you know, looking for patterns that those clues represent. The pattern is that professional athletes, particularly the higher-profile professional athletes that come to mind first, are big. So, called on to make a choice before you had all the information necessary and without enough time to get more information, you used a mental shortcut – a representativeness heuristic – to come up with an answer.

So how do such shortcuts influence our young man’s fears of GMOs? Is he completely informed about biotechnology, about how genetically modified food is created, or grown? No. But he does know that some of his food might be produced by Monsanto or DuPont, those evil chemical companies that make pesticides and all sorts of toxic industrial chemicals (insert scary music here).

So, in the name of assessing whether GMOs might be a potential risk and trying to keep himself safe, he subconsciously opens the filing cabinets of what he does know and, based on common fear of “chemicals” and “pesticides” and widespread mistrust of “chemical companies”, GMOs therefore represent something that feels scary.

Another heuristic that feeds fear of GMOs is called “loss aversion”. Like all of us, our angry young man gives more emotional significance to loss than to equivalent gain. Even if a risk is small, the potential for harm (loss) carries greater emotional power, so fear overwhelms purely objective consideration of the factual evidence. Such innate precaution makes a lot of sense. Better Safe Than Sorry helps keeps us alive.

But loss aversion also makes many risks feel more frightening than the facts warrant. So no matter how much the older guy in the coffee shop claims that GMOs pose no known risks and that they offer huge benefits, if anything about genetically modified food makes it feel like there might be danger (loss), the safest default emotional response will be to see GMOs as a risk.

Gregory Roberts

Beyond those heuristics, several specific emotional characteristics also make GMOs feel scary. These “fear factors” have been identified in pioneering research in risk perception by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon, Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon University, and others. You can hear them pop up as the young man explains his fears. “It’s just not natural to take the gene from one species and put it in another. It’s just not natural!”

Indeed, taking a gene from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis - Bt) that produces a natural pesticide and injecting that gene into the DNA of a soy plant, is hardly Mother Nature’s way of hybridising plants. But does that have anything to do with whether it’s actually risky? No. Scientifically, whether something is a risk depends on whether it is physically hazardous, in what ways and at what dose, and whether we’re exposed, at what age and how often. A radioactive particle in your lungs can cause cancer whether the particle came from the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil, which produces natural radon gas, or from a nuclear power plant accident. But risk perception research has found that natural risks don’t feel as scary as the the equivalent man-made risks.

This emotional factor is a core theme in fear of GMOs. Indeed it was the basis for a recent ruling by the Philippines Appeals Court banning field trials of Bt eggplant. The court said GM foods are “…an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology”.

Another “fear factor” identified in research by Slovic and others is the issue of “uncertainty”. You can hear this in that coffee shop argument too. “I don’t care what all those experts say about how there hasn’t been any risk found so far,” the young man cries. “That’s doesn’t mean there are no risks, just that they haven’t found it yet. We haven’t been doing the research long enough. We’re still not sure.”

It’s easy to see why uncertainty breeds fear. When we face a possible threat but we can’t detect it with our senses, or when it’s complicated and we don’t understand it, or when science still hasn’t answered all the questions about the risk, we don’t know what we need to know to protect ourselves. We feel powerless, which makes us feel more afraid. GMOs qualify for all three categories of uncertainty. GM food ingredients are undetectable. The science is complex and hard to understand. And some questions remain (which is why field tests are done, of course). The fear factor of uncertainty also informed the Filipino court ruling. Making the same emotional case that the angry young man did, the court banned the field tests because they “could not be declared…safe to human health and to our ecology with full scientific certainty”. (my emphasis).

Slovic and colleagues have also learned that we are more afraid of a risk if it’s imposed on us than if we engage in the same risk voluntarily. That explains why the passionate young man in the coffee shop argues, “Why don’t they just label it? Don’t we have a right to know what’s in our food? Of course we do!” Labelling of products that may contain GM ingredients has wide support because it gives consumers choice which makes anything less scary. Interestingly, this suggests that labelling would encourage acceptance of GMOs, not scare people away as anti-GMO activists hope.

Opposing GMO because Monsanto uses the technology is kind
of like opposing petrol because it’s made and sold by BP.

That’s just what happened when a few US companies decided to sell products treated by irradiation, which kills germs and reduces spoilage and the risk of food-borne disease. Anti-irradiation activists, many of whom now oppose GMOs for many of the same emotional reasons (both are human-made, invisible, hard to understand, and are associated with what we’ve learned to be afraid of), successfully fought to require labelling. They hoped the label requirement would scare companies out of using the technology because those companies worried that the labels would alarm consumers. It worked. Most food companies, the same ones now fighting GMO labelling, avoid using food irradiation because of the labelling requirement. But a few supermarket chains have chosen to use food irradiation to treat products such as ground beef. And it turns out that openly labelled irradiated ground beef sold under store brand labels sells just fine. Labelling of GM foods, which would make any associated risk feel voluntary, would probably reduce fear in many people, more than raise it.

This fear spreads back to the big biotech firms themselves even though they only make the seeds or agricultural chemicals that produce the crops. They don’t have to label their products. It’s the Kellogg’s and Coca-Colas and Nestlés, the food companies that turn the crops into retail products, that would have to do the labelling, and they are deeply worried that doing so will cost them money. These food companies are so worried, in fact, that they are already demanding that farmers produce non-GMO crops for foods to be sold in Europe where labelling is required. That eats into the profits of big biotech agriculture companies. Which is just what opponents of GMOs hope the label threat will do. No wonder big agricultural biotech firms such as Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta have spent so much money fighting the labelling initiatives that have come up for public votes in some states in America.

Were they to support labelling instead and provide financial assistance to the food companies worried about scaring off customers, the psychology of risk perception suggests that may not happen. Labelling may encourage acceptance of GM foods more than scare people away.

Gregory Roberts

In addition to the already long list of psychological characteristics that make GMOs feel frightening, there is one other factor that may be the biggest of all. Although we may believe we’re making up our own minds about various issues, in fact we tend to choose views that align with those of our friends.

As the young man makes his case against GMOs, he cites sources such as Greenpeace (which vehemently opposes biotechnology). He also stands with the thousands who last year participated in the global March Against Monsanto. This puzzles you: “Opposing GMOs because Monsanto uses the technology is kind of like opposing petrol because it’s made and sold by BP or Exxon-Mobil”, you think to yourself. That doesn’t make any sense, right?

Well actually that sort of thinking – matching our views to those of our tribe – makes a lot of sense given that the brain’s main job is to keep us safe. Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan and others call this “cultural cognition” and it’s easy to see why it plays a big role in the overall psychology of risk perception. Social animals like us depend on our tribe, for our health and safety. So it is protective to agree with our group, because the others in the group will then treat us as a loyal member, worthy of support and protection. And when everybody in our group agrees and there is no dissension, social unity makes our group stronger in the competition with other groups over who wins elections and which laws get written and other fundamental aspects of how society works. When our group is more successful in shaping society, that makes us feel safer too.

The theory of “cultural cognition” has found that we fall into four basic groups, defined not by the familiar labels of political party or race or gender, but by deeper worldviews about the general sort of society we want to live in. One of these groups is known as Egalitarians. Our passionate young man appears to belong to this group. Egalitarians prefer a society that is fair and flexible, with equal opportunity for everyone, a society that does not trap people in rigid stratified hierarchies of social and economic class. The people in the “Occupy Wall Street” (and “Occupy” other places) movement are Egalitarians. They are angry that the wealthy 1% has all the levers of power and aren’t allowing the other 99% fair and equal control over their lives. That’s not the way Egalitarians want the world to work.

To Egalitarians, the rich and powerful 1% imposing this unfair world on others include big global corporations, like Monsanto, that make and profit from GMOs. So Egalitarians dislike those companies and the technologies and products from which they profit. This explains why the young man in the coffee shop is so passionate about attacking Monsanto for requiring farmers to buy new seeds each year – which, as it happens, most farmers were already doing, since commercially produced seeds are generally more productive. Regardless, that deeply offends the way an Egalitarian like our angry young man thinks the world should work and why he fights so fiercely on this point. His tribal identity is at stake. If he loses this point, he is truly and deeply threatened.

Mark Lynas describes how that feels. A long-time environmental activist, he recently changed his mind about GMOs.

“I lacked the courage to speak out for a long, long time. When I did, I felt like I had fallen through the floor. It was heretical to my tribe.” That is not the language of reason, nor does it have anything to do with the facts about GMOs. It is the language of fear, and emotion, which is the central language that shapes the way we see risks.

We sometimes get risk wrong. We worry too much about
some things and not enough about others, leading to mistakes.

Your coffee shop combatants finally run out of steam and agree to disagree. The conversation shifts to the upcoming football game. The fireworks may be over, but you are still mulling over what you just overheard. You realise it was an argument about GMOs that wasn’t really about GMOs at all. And it occurs to you that, as real and powerful as all those competing emotions may be, analysing the risk of a relatively new technology that way doesn’t make for reasoned debate or informed policy choices.

In fact, it seems downright dangerous. You remember reading about those thousands of people who starved to death in Zambia during a 2002 famine when the government was convinced by European anti-GMO advocates to refuse food aid that contained genetically modified corn. And you remember hearing about something called Golden Rice, which carries a gene providing beta carotene, supplying vitamin A that could prevent blindness and death in millions of children and pregnant women. You think, “It seems risky to let our emotions get in the way of the facts like this”.

You’re right. When the emotional nature of risk perception causes us to worry too much, or not enough, it creates something that has been called the “risk perception gap”. Just as some deny the evidence of the safety of GMOs, others deny the overwhelming evidence of climate change, a huge threat that grows more and more dangerous the longer doubt causes delay. The “risk perception gap” works both ways. We sometimes worry too much and sometimes too little, and the gap between our fears and the facts can be a huge risk all by itself.

This seems dumb and irrational to let our feelings about risk lead us into greater danger. But to treat that young man as though he is irrational and deny the validity of his feelings is not only pointless. It’s counterproductive and will only fuel his passions. The subjective nature of risk perception is an inherent reality of human cognition. His feelings may not match the facts, but they are real and deeply rooted and as Kahan has found they are important to his identity and his sense of safety. Challenging his feelings as irrational makes him feel threatened. To defend himself, he hardens his positions. Just as you realised back when the initial argument between him and the pro-GMO advocate was ramping up, if the argument is really about feelings and not facts, arguing your facts and denying the other person’s feelings is probably not going to get the other person to change his or her mind.

So what, you wonder, are we to do when issues like this arise, when the Risk Perception Gap between our fears and the facts delays action on climate change, or blocks application of technologies that might do the world a lot of good? That’s where the research in risk perception is heading. Kahan and other scholars are applying what we’ve learned about the psychology of risk perception to the challenge of more effective risk communication. They are identifying ways to present information about controversial risk issues that avoid challenging people’s tribal positions. They are using insights about the emotional nature of risk perception to frame information so that people are more likely to align their views with the evidence. Mark Lynas is encouraging agricultural biotech companies to learn from the psychology of risk perception and support food labelling, because giving people choice may reduce public apprehensions about GMOs and encourage acceptance.

The bad news is, given the inherently emotional and instinctive nature of risk perception, we sometimes get risk wrong. We worry too much about some things and not enough about others, leading to mistakes and additional risks.

The good news is, we can apply all we’ve learned about the emotional nature of risk perception to the challenge of communicating about risk more respectfully, less combatively, framing information in ways that are consistent with rather than threatening to the values and feelings of those we are trying to persuade. We can stop criticising this behaviour as irrational or anti-science, labels sure to inflame more than persuade. We can use what science has taught us about how risk perception works to narrow the Risk Perception Gap and reduce the very real threat it poses. It would be dangerous not to.

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Contrib davidropeik.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
David Ropeik is an Instructor in the Environmental Management Program of the Harvard School of Continuing Education. He is author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, and a consultant in risk perception and risk management.
Contrib gregoryroberts.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Gregory Roberts is an illustrator and graphic designer based in Adelaide. His work has appeared in AFR Boss magazine, The Age, Oxford University Press, Macmillan Publishing, Qantas magazine,
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