GMOs and the “reverse halo effect”: Trust is key to dispelling consumer fear

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Slapping a ‘contains GMOs’ label on a box of cereal has more nuanced effects than just informing a consumer what’s in his food, Maria Konnikova reports in a recent blog post for the New Yorker.

The public’s perception of GMOs has a subtle psychological effect that could explain the widespread fear driving the anti-GMO community. There are more than 20 labeling initiatives around the country, including a high profile campaign in Washington State that will be voted on this fall.

Konnikova describes a psychological phenomenon called the “halo effect,” “whereby one positive attribute of a person or thing colors other, unrelated characteristics in a positive light.” In the grocery store, there is always that special aisle labeled ‘organic.’ But what’s so special about this label? Konnikova, citing a 2013 study from Cornell University, explains that a cookie labeled ‘organic’ will be perceived as healthier, safer and worth a higher price tag than a cookie lacking the label – even if the two cookies are identical.

David H. Freedman, in an Atlantic Monthly feature story last month, catalogues this effect without ever naming it. He tells an anecdote about searching Los Angeles high and low for the healthiest smoothie. After checking out numerous proudly labeled ‘organic’ smoothies from restaurants that boast healthier, farm-fresh food choices, he finds the healthiest smoothie, with the least amount of calories and sugar, at McDonald’s. He goes on to describe how many popular ‘organic’ food items are not as healthy as we think they are – breaded peas soaked in fatty oils, tofu cakes loaded with fats and carbs, kale salads dripping with fatty, salty dressing.

Despite the organic labels, these particular foods were not as healthy as many people assume. The organic label designates a production process and nothing more, although many people erroneously believe organic foods are necessarily more nutritious or healthier

The halo effect can be seen in the GMO labeling fight, only in the case of GMOs, it is reversed.

Konnikova explains that consumers experience a “reverse halo effect” when perceiving GMOs – once something is labeled ‘genetically modified,’ it will be perceived as unnatural, which has a history of being synonymous with ‘bad.’ Humankind has been genetically modifying organisms for centuries with selective breeding, so the fact that this modern technology does it at a lab bench colors the whole process in an unfamiliar, and therefore more terrifying, light.

This unfamiliarity, Konnikova explains, is what makes GMOs so scary to the general population. She cites Paul Slovic, a psychologist who has been researching risk since the 1950s:

Slovic argues that three things stand in the way of a logical, analytical risk assessment of new technologies: our level of dread, our degree of familiarity (or lack thereof), and the number of people we believe the technology will affect. GMOs are at the extreme of that scale, high in dread and possible impact, while being low in familiarity: though an estimated eighty percent of packaged food in the U.S. contains GMOs, only thirty-five per cent of the population thinks GMOs are safe, according to one recent estimate, and only a quarter say they understand what genetic engineering of food actually entails.

Consumer fear of GMOs seems to originate from a lack of knowledge about GMOs themselves. As the recently anti-GMO activist turned GMO advocate Mark Lynas has said, “the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century.”

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Those entities perceived to be ‘in control’–in this case, multinational corporations such as Monsanto or Syngenta that control a large part of the GMO seed market–are also not inciting a feeling of trust that is necessary for consumers to accept an unfamiliar technology like GMOs. As Konnikova writes, “In addition to perceptions of risk, one of the single greatest elements that effects [sic] our acceptance of new technologies is trust.” At the moment, very few people really know what GMOs are, what the process of genetically modifying an organism entails, or how GMOs really differ from non-GMOs.

In an effort to combat this unfamiliarity and gain the trust of consumers, several well-known corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta, recently launched GMO Answers, a site aiming to “do a better job answering your questions – no matter what they are – about GMOs.” Their stated goal: to start an open dialogue and provide science and fact-based information to the general public.

The response from GMO opponents has been frosty at best. GMWatch immediately called for its readers to sign up for an account on GMO Answers—not to join the conversation but to “challenge each of their misleading entries.” Many anti-GMO activists claim the corporation-funded site is merely a public relations tactic meant to distract the public from recent food-labeling bills that have sprouted around the country. Every independent scientist who addressed an issue (everything from terminator seeds to threats from potential new allergens) has been accused of being owned by Monsanto or paid by the industry.

Despite the fact that Bt Cotton saved Burkina Faso’s cotton industry, or that the ring-spot virus is no longer a major threat to Hawaii’s papaya industry because of genetic modification, or that scientists have developed Golden Rice, which could save millions of children from vitamin A deficiency, the general public is shrouded in the reverse halo effect. Someday, Konnikova predicts, the need for the technology will outweigh the unnecessary fear.

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