Moulding public opinion – truth and myth
Can citizens’ opinions be influenced by feeding them with information on science and technology? The answer is not so simple, says Hans Peter Peters, director of the Humans-Environment-Technology programme at the Juelich Research Centre (DE). A reader or listener’s reaction to a particular message is the outcome of a personal and largely unpredictable cognitive process, the mechanisms of which we are only just beginning to discover.
Your research consists of analysing how people react to a press article or a TV report. What happens during the reception of the message?
|Sociologist, physicist and journalist Hans Peter Peters is concentrating his research on scientific and environmental communication.|
What we observe, first of all, is that one and the same attitude can, in fact, be the outcome of very different mental processes. Take, for example, a scene showing cows being injected with hormones. Many people will express their rejection of such practices, but the logical processes behind their arguments can differ greatly. One person will find this unacceptable for the animals. Another will say that it presents too great a risk to consumer health. A third will place the message in a context which has nothing to do with the document itself, like agricultural policy, and proceed to criticise the mad rush towards productivity. In other words, everyone reacts by referring to different elements, reflecting their own memories and sensitivities. Such tests reveal hidden mechanisms. This is what is known as the cognitive response process.
Why do such mechanisms exist?
The key lies in existing attitudes. People look to new information to support the opinions they have already formed. They hear those facts that confirm them, and ignore or reject those that contradict them.
Which poses the question of where these pre-existent ways of thinking come from. In areas like biology, which have been the subject of public debate for many years, everyone has had time to develop their own opinions. But how does this work in the case of more recent information? To understand the mechanisms involved, we presented a number of people with some scientific research that is almost unknown to the general public. What we saw was that “fresh” information influences attitudes much more strongly, even if existing attitudes continue to manifest themselves as a function of, at times, quite indirect criteria. For example, a new project by a respected institution will benefit from the trust placed in it.
In other words, we are confronted with a number of pre-existing sources of attitudes. In a large majority of people, however, basic attitudes are built up on receiving fresh information of any kind. And once these attitudes exist, new information is handled so as to reinforce them.
Does the level of knowledge of the subjects play a role in these attitudes?
A popular conception is that the better educated and well informed people are, the more favourable they will be to new scientific applications. In fact, our analyses point to an absence of any direct link between knowledge and attitudes. We find all sorts of combinations, with correlations in both directions. Highly knowledgeable people can be strongly for or against a particular innovation, as the case may be, whereas poorly informed people have no particular opinion.
That being said, it is often the best informed people who are the most reticent in coming out clearly “for” or “against” something. This may be because better educated people with more information at their disposal tend to take more viewpoints into account, which makes it more difficult to arrive at a final decision. In any event, this result puts pay to the idea – shared by groups with radically opposing interests, such as industrialists and ecologists – that information can “tip” opinion. Ultimately, levels of information are not a decisive factor in the creation of people’s attitudes.
In which case, public information campaigns are all a waste of time and energy…
Of course not. They serve to improve reflection and debate, and to train and inform citizens, all of which are laudable ends in themselves. But the temptation to “manipulate” one’s readers or listeners is based on an illusion, as the link between information and opinion is fundamentally unpredictable. Opinions are the product of complex processes depending on people’s individual mental models. These models include factual elements, but also ethical, emotional and other considerations, which cannot be modified by simply providing additional information. But better an opinion based on masses of information than the same opinion based on almost none.
Other than pre-existing attitudes and knowledge, have you studied other factors?
We have examined recipients’ motivation. That is their interest, curiosity and desire to know more. And this time our study shows a positive correlation. For example, people who are most interested in biotechnologies also express the most positive attitudes. In other words, it is motivation, not information, which provides the link to positive attitudes. Even so, we need to be careful when talking cause and effect. Are people motivated because they are favourably inclined towards the subject, or are they favourably inclined because they are interested in it? We simply do not know.
Have you also tested the cultural factor?
We are currently doing so with a homogenous study in Germany and the United States, countries with clear cultural differences and where media coverage is not comparable. How then do reactions differ to one and the same item of information? We took two populations of primary schoolteachers of both sexes, and gave them each the same articles to read on food biotechnologies. The cultural contrasts came out very clearly, with the Germans much more inclined than the Americans to question the credibility of the information.
You have made one astonishing observation: when receiving a scientific item of information, people are four times more likely to react negatively than positively. This would mean that almost every commentary is a criticism?
This is a very general constant that takes many people by surprise. People are quite simply irrational, one might conclude. But this cannot be so, otherwise we would never have had the long adventure of human development. But it may be that we all have inside us an unconscious, primitive rationality, which is the result of the natural process of evolution. This tells us that it is better to be alarmed about something than to fail to notice a danger. In this way, negative information receives priority attention. Also, in our society of plenty, in which most of us are certain of our jobs, housing and food from one day to the next, it may be that positive expectations are “normal”, and we, therefore, seize only on information that could announce a threat to these standards. Another possible explanation is that citizens believe that the positive outcomes of science are handled by different institutions, whilst the management of its risks is neglected. This makes them feel obliged to remain on their guard.
But are these negative reactions not always linked to people’s negative attitudes?
No, they can be expressed by people who are favourably inclined to the subject but are, nonetheless, capable of perceiving the dangers or negative side effects. And however much this may irritate decision-makers, it does show that people apply their critical faculties to the information they receive. They are aware that what they are confronted with is a particular portrayal of reality and not reality itself. Moreover, a portion of the comments are addressed not at the information proper, but at how it is presented – how clear, how credible, etc. The general public comes down like a ton of bricks on scientists who speak a complicated language, whereas experts are often under the impression that they need to appear hermetic in order to be deemed credible. It is exactly the opposite that is true. Aloofness is perceived as a sign of disdain, and totally wrecks any communication.
In other words, people look as much at how the content is communicated as at the content itself.
Precisely. And it is here that the intention to manipulate can prove disastrous. When people sense it, they feel degraded. Institutions which start to communicate with citizens in “advertising mode” run a severe risk. In the fields of health and safety, this form of communication blots out all credibility. Some people are talking of launching “brand policies” in the scientific field, with each institution or organisation having its own image, a bit like Coca-Cola. What they fail to see is that this will reduce them to being no more than an image, an unimportant product.
Such an approach is contrary to everything science has achieved until now. Many surveys tell us that science is always ahead in terms of credibility. A policy of instrumentalising this authority will inevitably be its death knell. The correct path leads in the other direction: Information to inform, not to manipulate. Putting forward the arguments as best one can, backed up with honest, clear, complete and up-to-date information. In short, positioning oneself as a credible communicator. And even if we fail to convince our readers or listeners, at least they will feel that they have been respected. And this too can play a role in shaping their opinion, given that information is not the sole factor at play. At times, perceiving the informing party to be honest can achieve more than the information itself.