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Cultural cognition of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology


How is public opinion towards nanotechnology likely to evolve? The ‘familiarity hypothesis’ holds that support for nanotechnology will likely grow as awareness of it expands. The basis of this conjecture is opinion polling, which finds that few members of the public claim to know much about nanotechnology, but that those who say they do are substantially more likely to believe its benefits outweigh its risks1,2,3,4. Some researchers, however, have avoided endorsing the familiarity hypothesis, stressing that cognitive heuristics and biases could create anxiety as the public learns more about this novel science5,6. We conducted an experimental study aimed at determining how members of the public would react to balanced information about nanotechnology risks and benefits. Finding no support for the familiarity hypothesis, the study instead yielded strong evidence that public attitudes are likely to be shaped by psychological dynamics associated with cultural cognition.

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Figure 1: Effect of information on risk–benefit perceptions of subjects defined by self-reported familiarity with nanotechnology and cultural worldviews.
Figure 2: How people familiar and unfamiliar with nanotechnology view the risks and benefits of other technologies.
Figure 3: Relationships between cultural worldviews, information exposure and risk–benefit perceptions.


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This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (SES 0621840), the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, and the Oscar Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School. We thank E. Peters for advice on the study design, and R. MacCoun for valuable comments on earlier drafts.

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All authors participated in the design of the study, in analysis of the results, and in drafting and revision of the paper.

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Correspondence to Dan M. Kahan.

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Kahan, D., Braman, D., Slovic, P. et al. Cultural cognition of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Nature Nanotech 4, 87–90 (2009).

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