What people tell each other about new technologies

And how this communication can go wrong

New technologies, like genetic engineering, 5G and underground CO2 storage, can play an important role in our ability to rise to the serious challenges that face mankind. Whether or not these new technologies are introduced will to a certain extent depend on public opinion. The more negative this is, the less likely that new technologies will be implemented. Hans Hoeken, professor of Communication and Information Sciences, and Madelijn Strick, a social psychologist, both work at Utrecht University and have done research through experiments to study how people transfer information about new technologies to each other. Hoeken says, ‘A lot goes wrong in the process.’ Their findings were published in the International Journal of Communication today.

People are increasingly getting information about technologies from their peers and via their social networks rather than directly from the scientists who developed the technologies or the organisations responsible for them. Hoeken says, ‘This communication process between people can involve bias, as people may exaggerate the risks or benefits and, by doing this, present a distorted view of a new technology.’


Two experiments

The research conducted by Hoeken and Strick involved 2 experiments (with 200 test subjects per experiment) in which they studied what people would tell a close friend or acquaintance about a new technology. Strick explains, ‘We asked them to write this down. They were given information about a technology that was designed to make food last longer. The information provided about the characteristics of the technology in question was exactly the same. However, one half of participants were told that these were characteristics of high-pressure pasteurisation technology and the other half that they were characteristics of radiation technology.’

NVWA and Nestlé

The researchers also manipulated the original source of the information, stating that it was either the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit (NVWA)) or Nestlé. Hoeken says, ‘A preliminary study of ours had already revealed a negative attitude towards radiation and a positive attitude towards pasteurisation. We had also found that people felt the NVWA was more credible than Nestlé.’

The participants mentioned more benefits if the information was from the more credible source

A more negative tone

The research results show that a great deal of information is lost in the communication process. Participants also spoke in a more negative tone about the characteristics of radiation technology than those of pasteurisation technology. Moreover, they reported more risks with irradiation technology than with pasteurisation technology. Finally, the participants mentioned more benefits if the information was from the more credible source, i.e. the NVWA.

Information from laypeople

According to Hoeken, ‘Both the initial attitude to a technology and the credibility of the source influence which information is communicated and in which tone. With more and more people getting their information from other laypeople, via their social networks and media, this is a key insight, because public opinion about new technologies plays an important role in their acceptance.’