Communicating nanotechnology: Image counts!

What determines your view of nanotechnology—the message, or the messenger?  Most of us would like to think it is the message that governs our internal risk-benefit analysis.  But research published this week suggests other factors may be at work.

Dan Kahan at Yale Law School and his colleagues are shaking up our ideas on effective communication and engagement when it comes to complex issues like emerging nanotechnologies.  They have already demonstrated what many jaded science communicators have learned the hard way—that shouting louder and longer about the facts doesn’t necessarily lead to “right-minded” thinking in the general population.*  In their latest study (available here) they show that when it comes to balancing possible nanotechnology benefits and risks, the messenger is quite possibly as important as the message.

In brief, the team assigned positions on nanotechnology risks and benefits to four fictitious cultural advocates and recorded the risk perceptions of 800 people, based on which advocate was giving which message.  In technical terms, both subjects and advocates were broken down by their different worldviews: hierarchs versus egalitarians, and individualists versus communitarians (mystified by the terminology?  You’re not alone!).  In practice, this led to four visually distinct advocates:

  • the smooth “leader of industry”—complete with power-suit (individualist/hierarchist);
  • the paternal community leader—sporting jacket and tie (communitarian/hierarchist);
  • the slick young entrepreneur—sans tie (individualist/egalitarian); and
  • the bearded Prof.—also without a tie (communitarian/egalitarian).

(My descriptions by the way – not Dan’s.)

The results: when subjects with egalitarian tendencies were exposed to an advocate who looked like a fellow egalitarian calling for a suspension of nanotechnology development, their perception of the risks went up.  And when hierarchs heard someone who looked like another hierarch advocating nanotechnology development, their perception of the risks went down. In other words, the perceived values of the messengers were strongly biasing the subjects’ perceptions of risk.  According to Kahan:

“when individuals of diverse cultural outlooks observe an advocate whose values they share advancing an argument they are predisposed to accept, and an advocate whose values they reject advancing an argument they are predisposed to resist, cultural polarization grows.”

The fun really started when the fictitious thought-leaders were given the opposite message to what you might expect—the “leader of industry” calling for a suspension of nanotechnology and the Prof. advocating its development.  People tended to follow the advocates, even though the views being expressed were out of sync with their worldview! Kahan again:

“if, however, individuals observe an advocate whose values they share advancing the argument they are otherwise predisposed to resist, and an advocate whose values they reject advancing the argument they are otherwise predisposed to accept, there is a complete inversion of the positions on nanotechnology risks normally associated with particular cultural outlooks.”

This limited message-mixing exercise gives a tantalizing taste of what a planned follow-on study might reveal. But even accounting for its somewhat narrow scope, the conclusion is inescapable: the messenger is important.

Even more intriguing to me (or worrying – depending where you lie on the egalitarian/hierarchist/whatchamacalit/thingummybob scale) is that people may be willing to follow the opinions of advocates based on what they look like. (okay, so it is a little more complex than that, but what is clear is that visual impressions of empathy count—possibly more so than the science).

So where does this leave us with nanotechnology?  For a start, in case we hadn’t quite got the message yet; the science does not speak for itself.  If we are to communicate nanoscience and nanotechnology effectively and engender a meaningful dialogue amongst citizens and other stakeholders, we need to think carefully about who the messengers are, and what messages they convey.

The cynic in me finds this rather worrying—are we opening the doors to manipulating public opinion here, simply by choosing advocates that look the part? (To be honest, when first reading through this study the cynic in me also thought “so what’s new—haven’t we always suspected that in today’s society image is everything?”).

But Kahan eloquently makes the point that if we want enlightened public deliberation on nanotechnology, we have a means to neutralize cultural bias. The study shows that when multiple messages come from advocates having different outlooks—what Kahan calls “advocacy pluralism”—cultural bias begins to disappear.  And this opens up the pathway to dialogues that are less likely to divide along cultural lines.

This surely is where we want to be, if the long-term aim is to enable science-based decision-making.  But getting there will require action on the part of governments and others: to identify and equip suitable messengers; and to develop understandable and level-headed messages.  And this must be followed by genuine citizen engagement, if the door to science and technology decision-making is to be opened wider to allow the public in.  Only then will we be able to work effectively in partnership towards nanotechnologies that deliver on their promise.

And for those readers who are currently holding judgement on this piece until they know what I am wearing; let’s just say that in the complex world of cultural advocacy power-dressing, I strongly believe that less is more.

* Kahan, D., Slovic, P., Braman, D., Gastil, J. and Cohen, G. (2007). Nanotechnology risk perceptions: The influence of affect and values, Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington DC.


This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in February 2008

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