Using data from policy analyses, media analyses and a European-wide survey about public perceptions of biotechnology conducted in 1996 and again in 1999, it is shown how a country's public develops an everyday understanding of a new technology (genetic modification) construed as potentially harmful by the media. To understand the reliance on images and related beliefs, we propose a theory of collective symbolic coping. It identifies four steps: first, the creation of awareness; second, production of divergent images; third, convergence upon a couple of dominant images in the public sphere; fourth, normalization. It is suggested that symbolic coping occurs in countries where a recent increase in policy activity and of media reporting has alerted the public; that this public show a high proportion of beliefs in menacing images; that these beliefs are relatively independent of pre-existing popular science knowledge; and that they are functionally equivalent to scientific knowledge in providing judgmental confidence and reducing self-ascribed ignorance. These propositions are shown to be true in Austria and Greece. Several implications of the theory are discussed, including social representation theory and public understanding of science.