A study published Jan. 17 in Nature Human Behavior revealed that more than 90% of the 2,000-plus US and European adults surveyed by researchers at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania reported some level of opposition to GMO foods. In addition, 93% reported some level of concern and 73% cited food safety or health concerns specifically.
Yet, when researchers tested respondents’ objective knowledge about genetically modified foods with a series of 15 true-false questions, they found those who most opposed the use of genetic engineering in food also had the lowest actual knowledge about the technology.
On the surface, this disjoint could be explained away as a general fear of the unknown. Except the study also evaluated participants’ self-assessed knowledge, or how much they thought they knew about the topic, and found that those who held the most extreme views about GMOs also often thought they knew the most about the topic.
“Self-assessed knowledge is a strong predictor of attitudes, and people tend to be poor judges of how much they know. They often suffer from an illusion of knowledge, thinking that they understand everything from common household objects to complex social policies better than they do,” the researchers note in the paper.
The difference between real and perceived knowledge highlighted in the study could explain why efforts by the scientific community and advocates for genetic modification have not significantly moved the needle in the ongoing debate about GMOs in the food supply.
“Those with the strongest anti-consensus views are the most in need of education, but also the least likely to be receptive to learning” due to their overconfidence in their knowledge, the researchers write. “This suggests that a prerequisite to changing people’s views through education may be getting them to first appreciate the gaps in their knowledge.”
Easier said than done?
Convincing people to have an open mind about GMOs may not be as difficult as the paper in Nature Human Behavior suggests, according to another, unaffiliated survey conducted by YouGov for GMO Answers, an initiative committed to answering consumers’ questions about genetic modification and how food is grown.
Last October, YouGov reported there was widespread confusion among Americans about what GMOs are, but, it also found that their confusion did not equate to outright rejection of the technology.
Rather, it found that while 69% of consumers reported they were not confident they knew what GMOs are, roughly three in five Americans said they were interested in learning more about the technology. Specifically, 74% wanted to learn more about GMO’s impact on their overall health, and 67% wanted to know about the overall safety of GMOs.
These results reinforced the dedication of those behind GMO Answers, a spokesman for which said that the initiative would continue to answer consumers’ questions and concerns about GMOs in a “transparent and easy-to-access manner” that relied on “validated, independent and peer-reviewed science.”