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YLS’s Cultural Cognition Project Finds Emotions and Values Shape Public Perception of Nanotechnology

“Members of the public are likely to polarize on the safety of nanotechnology along exactly the same lines that now characterize disputes over nuclear power, global warming and other contentious environmental issues absent a major public education effort by industry, government, civic groups and scientists.”

That is the conclusion of Dan M. Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School, whose Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, just completed a study investigating public perceptions of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.

Results of the study of 1,800 persons who participated in an online survey were released March 7, 2007. Of the two major findings, the first is that “affect,” or emotion, plays a key role in people’s perceptions of nanotechnology.

“People who know little or nothing about this new technology instantly react in an emotionally charged way. They go with their gut instinct—which usually reflects their views toward other issues like climate change and nuclear power,” said Kahan.

The second major finding is that individuals’ values determine their reaction to information about nanotechnology. Kahan says his research compared the views of subjects who received information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology to those who did not.

“We found that when people who hold largely ‘individualistic’ values—and who tend to dismiss claims that commerce and industry are dangerous and need regulation—receive information about nanotechnology, they tend to focus on the benefits. When those who hold ‘egalitarian’ and ‘communitarian’ values—and who are relatively more community-oriented and sensitive to environmental and technological risks—get the same information, they focus on the risks.”

“Social psychologists call this a polarization effect,” said Kahan, who added that the Cultural Cognition Project team plans to engage in future research on ways to communicate about nanotechnology that doesn’t polarize people.

“When it comes to nanotechnology, the American public is probably like people from Missouri, the ‘Show Me’ State,” according to David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “They have to be convinced that the benefits of this new technology—with its valuable applications in medicine, the environment, and energy production—will outweigh its risks.”

The study also confirmed a major finding of an earlier poll conducted by Hart Research that Americans remain largely unaware of nanotechnology—despite government and industry investments of $10 billion annually in nanotechnology research and development. 

For a summary of the study findings, visit the Cultural Cognition Project website at http://research.yale.edu/culturalcognition.

This study was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School is an interdisciplinary team of experts from Yale University, the University of Washington, The George Washington University and Decision Research that uses survey data to explore how people's cultural orientation, on scales of hierarchy-egalitarianism and individualism-solidarism, affects their views on specific political issues. For more information, visit http://research.yale.edu/culturalcognition.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information, log on to www.nanotechproject.org.

About Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. More than $30 billion in products incorporating nanotechnology were sold globally in 2005. By 2014, Lux Research estimates this figure will grow to $2.6 trillion.