Megan Fairchild Anderson
This past year, ABC News polled adults across the United States about their perception of genetically modified foods. The survey, titled “Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods,” found that 52 percent believe GM foods are unsafe, despite scientific consensus that they are. A 2015 survey from the National Chicken Council showed 77 percent of consumers believe chicken contains added hormones or steroids, despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned all hormones and steroids in poultry nearly 70 years ago. Finally, 2016 research from Oklahoma State University showed 98 percent of consumers surveyed incorrectly think hormones are used in pork and chicken production.
Today, many consumers perceive that conventional agriculture produces unsafe food. This chasm between perception and reality, which isn’t unique to the communications industry, is a vast divide for communications to bridge. Is it even possible?
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Feb. '18 Environmental PR & Public Affairs Magazine
The reality is that agricultural innovation, built on science, has allowed farmers to safely and efficiently produce the food required to feed a growing global population. According to National Geographic, a farmer in the early 1900s produced food to feed a family of five. Today, one farmer can feed more than 100 people. But again, these facts aren’t everyone’s truth.
Researchers exploring the psychology of why facts don’t change our minds generally start with the concept of confirmation bias. Simply put, this means that we humans tend to interpret new information as confirmation of our existing beliefs. Some researchers suggest that we get a shot of dopamine when our brains process information that supports our beliefs, giving us pleasure. When we’re presented with information that contradicts our beliefs, this creates discomfort, or cognitive dissonance. We work to reduce this discomfort with a set of behaviors known in psychology literature as motivated reasoning. We stick to our guns, argue our point, ignore the contradictory information or forget it altogether. Research shows that trying to correct misperceptions can make things worse because we tend to double down on our current belief.
Coupled with the tendency to believe information that supports our existing beliefs is evidence that false beliefs can also be social. Our beliefs are often tied to the groups to which we belong, creating deep roots in our lives and sense of self. A study on partisanship by Stony Brook University, and reported on in The Atlantic last year, determined that high levels of media coverage are required for partisans to accept a piece of information that runs counter to their political views. According to Politico, liberals tend to demonstrate chemophobia. This belief manifests itself in the fact that Democrats overwhelmingly support bills to ban BPA from products despite evidence that shows it is safe.
While psychology presents a dim picture of our ability to change our minds — and of our ability as communicators to influence rooted misperceptions — we can strategically stack the deck in our favor.
Start with clarity
How many times have you heard “don’t dumb down my information!” from scientists, researchers and technical subject matter experts across industries? It’s a common refrain, as we communicators work toward striking the balance between accuracy and clarity. A few years ago, I was working with a scientist on a presentation of research to a trade media group. During prep for the event, the scientist was very focused on sharing the details and nuances of the research, which would have been appropriate for a group of scientists or academics, but not for trade media. We counseled the scientist that this focus on accuracy, sharing data and specifics from all angles, clouded the purpose, results and important implications from the research. He disagreed and presented the detailed research. The first media question at the event was, “Can you explain that research again? I don’t understand what the research shows or why you’re talking about it.” This illustrates an important point that if the people you’re talking to don’t understand what you’re talking about, they’ll turn to information that complements the way they already see the world.
A common example in agriculture is the confusion around the number of hormones in beef cattle given growth hormones. The scientific explanation involves nanograms, estrogenic activity and “minimal” residue. That’s hard to understand and fuels a narrative that the food is unsafe. We get clarity when we explain the difference in hormone levels between a steak from a steer that did not use growth hormones and one that did is equivalent to a blade of grass on a football field.
Inoculate against misperceptions
Current research related to perceptions and politicization of climate change shows evidence that perception can be pre-emptively protected against misinformation if people are given “cues” from experts. The study reveals one promising way to counteract the politicization of science is to convey a high level of consensus among experts about the reality of human-caused climate change.
Credibility is the name of the game. As communicators, we often counsel that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. I would append this idiom, adding that if you don’t tell your story first and support it with clearly presented, credible expertise someone else will tell your story with misinformation that people believe.
Connection is key
One of the truths that has come out in the conversations around conventional agriculture, science and consumer cynicism is that people trust farmers. They love farmers but are skeptical of conventional farming practices. As we think about facts, expertise and the complicated business of changing misperceptions, we need to remember the power of a personal connection in delivering information. While human brains are hard-wired to keep deeply rooted beliefs, we can overcome this challenge by focusing on a connection strategy that both recognizes the human behavior that determines which information channels are best for each goal, and also reflects how channels interrelate, synchronize and work with audience behaviors.
One final thought on bridging the chasm between perception and reality: Execution is as important as strategy. Implement innovations and best practices across each channel and use best-of-breed tools to communicate efficiently and effectively.
Megan Fairchild Anderson is senior director at Padilla, where she provides strategic oversight for Padilla’s clients in the agricultural, animal health and environmental sciences industries.