GM Foods and the Misperception of Risk Perception

Authors


* Address correspondence to George Gaskell, Professor of Social Psychology, London School of Economics, Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation, London, WC2A 2AE; g.gaskell@lse.ac.uk.

Abstract

Public opposition to genetically modified (GM) food and crops is widely interpreted as the result of the public's misperception of the risks. With scientific assessment pointing to no unique risks from GM crops and foods, a strategy of accurate risk communication from trusted sources has been advocated. This is based on the assumption that the benefits of GM crops and foods are self-evident. Informed by the interpretation of some qualitative interviews with lay people, we use data from the Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology to explore the hypothesis that it is not so much the perception of risks as the absence of benefits that is the basis of the widespread rejection of GM foods and crops by the European public. Some respondents perceive both risks and benefits, and may be trading off these attributes along the lines of a rational choice model. However, for others, one attribute—benefit—appears to dominate their judgments: the lexicographic heuristic. For these respondents, their perception of risk is of limited importance in the formation of attitudes toward GM food and crops. The implication is that the absence of perceived benefits from GM foods and crops calls into question the relevance of risk communication strategies for bringing about change in public opinion.

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