Nanotechnology becoming old news?

How public attitudes about nanotechnology developed over the last few years.

Nanotechnology seems one of the most important breakthrough technologies of the last decades. Nanotechnology can enable improved versions of many existing products. For example, nano-supplements added to foods may be better taken up by the body, and have less taste effects compared to conventional food supplements. Although nanotechnology might bring many advantages, the public may still respond negatively to new technologies.

Negative public response may lead to rejection of the technology and its applications. Therefore it is important to know whether we can expect a sudden negative response to nanotechnology applications. We investigated changes in nanotechnology opinions over time to learn whether there are signs pointing to a developing negative response, a positive response, or continuing neutral response. In our paper, pre-published online in Public Understanding of Science, we show that over the last three years less attention was paid to nanotechnology in the media. We also show that attitudes towards nanotechnology enabled products are less stable compared to attitudes towards conventional alternatives.

The starting point of our study is that if people have little knowledge about a technology they rely relatively more on feelings (affect) than on facts (cognition). For well-known technologies facts do play a relatively more important role. We showed in a previous paper this is the case for nanotechnology. We then wondered how the evolving introduction of nanotechnology would influence public attitudes toward nanotechnology and the relative importance of feelings and facts on those attitudes.

The first thing we showed is that there was much attention on nanotechnology in the Dutch written media between 2008 and 2010. But by 2014 media attention had almost dropped to the level of 2007. This suggests that nanotechnology is not big news right now.

We then describe consumer opinion about nanotechnology from 2012 to 2014. In all these years, consumers reported little knowledge on nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is thus not common, …at least to the public. In addition, we showed that the overall opinions about nanotechnology were in general more informed by affect (feelings) than cognition (facts). Thus it appears that nanotechnology attitudes are indeed based on less knowledge than attitudes for conventional alternatives. Finally we showed that the exact balance between affect and cognition was less stable for nanotechnology enabled products but not for conventional product, suggesting that attitudes towards nanotechnology are not (yet) crystallised.

Together these findings suggest that at the moment there is no reason to think that the public, or the media will suddenly respond negatively towards nanotechnology. However, we also find no evidence of a lasting positive attitude. Therefore, scandals related to nanotechnology may still lead to major and sudden changes in attitude. Such scandals may still damage the image of nanotechnology as a whole. It remains the responsibility of nanotechnology researchers, developers and marketers to ensure that the products send to the market are of high quality to prevent scandals to occur.

This paper was written by Roxanne van Giesen, Arnout Fischer and Hans van Trijp and will be published in Public Understanding of Science. A fully edited version of the paper is available online ahead of print as:

Roxanne I. van Giesen, Arnout R. H. Fischer, Hans C. M. van Trijp, (July 28, 2016) Changes in the influence of affect and cognition over time on consumer attitude formation toward nanotechnology: A longitudinal survey study, Public Understanding of Science first published on July 28, 2016 as doi:10.1177/0963662516661292

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Arnout Fischer

About Arnout Fischer

Arnout Fischer is associate professor in the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. He studies consumer response to new technologies in food products and production. He thinks that consumer response to food innovation can only be understood if we realise that food is very special. Food is that special because all consumers have very much social and cultural knowledge what food should (or should not) be; and food consumption is very emotional.

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