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Study finds GM food opponents know less than they think

People reporting strong opposition to GM foods think they're more knowledgeable on topic but score lower on actual knowledge test.

The people who hold the most extreme views opposing genetically modified (GM) foods think they know most about GM food science but actually know the least, according to new research.

The paper, published Jan. 14 in Nature Human Behaviour, was a collaboration between researchers at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the University of Toronto in Ontario and the University of Pennsylvania.

Marketing and psychology researchers asked more than 2,000 U.S. and European adults for their opinions about GM foods. The surveys asked respondents how well they thought they understood GM foods and then tested how much they actually knew with a battery of true/false questions on general science and genetics.

Despite a scientific consensus that GM foods are safe for human consumption and have the potential to provide significant benefits, many people oppose their use. More than 90% of study respondents reported some level of opposition to GM foods, according to the news release from CU Boulder.

The paper's key finding is that the more strongly people report being opposed to GM foods, the more knowledgeable they think they are on the topic, but the lower they score on an actual knowledge test.

Psychology of extremism

“This result is perverse but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism,” said Philip Fernbach, the study's lead author and professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business. “Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do.”

A potential consequence of the phenomenon, according to the paper's authors, is that the people who know the least about important scientific issues may be likely to stay that way, because they may not seek out — or be open to — new knowledge.

“Our findings suggest that changing peoples' minds first requires them to appreciate what they don't know,” said study co-author Nicholas Light, a Leeds School of Business Ph.D. candidate in marketing. “Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus.”

Beyond GM foods

The paper's authors also explored other issues, like gene therapy and climate change denial. They found the same results for gene therapy. However, the pattern did not emerge for climate change denial.

The researchers hypothesize that the climate change debate has become so politically polarized that people's attitudes depend more on which group they affiliate with than how much they know about the issue.

Fernbach and Light plan to follow up this paper with more research on how their findings play into other issues like vaccinations, nuclear power and homeopathic medicine.

This research was funded by the Humility & Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut, the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at CU Boulder, the National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council.

Source: The University of Colorado Boulder, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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