The Importance of Fear
in the Case of Genetically Modified Food
by Fleur J.M. Laros & Jan-Benedict E. M. Steenkamp
Gene technology, and genetically modified food (GMF) in particular, is a controversial topic. On the one hand a (small) group of experts welcomed GMF as the food of the future and as a way to reduce hunger in the Third World. On the other hand, the public at large is very afraid of the “Frankenstein food”.
Why are consumers fearful? Consumer fears are enhanced by the numerous fear appeals concerning GMF that appear in the mass media. Many of these messages appeal directly to our fears by using terms like “Frankenfoods,” “unreliable,” “fears,” “disaster,” and “risk.” Due to the proposed “environmental risks,” “risks of cancer,” and “food health fears,” the public has the feeling that GMFs are a major problem that affect both the natural habitat and the health of the world’s population.
Many messages also appeal indirectly to fear, and refer to a lack of control, high uncertainty and negative consequences. These aspects are all strongly associated with the emotion fear. Feelings of lack of control are caused by terms like “escaping modified crops,” “contamination spread,” “GM crops need long term monitoring,” and “scientists can get things wrong.” Here the public has the feeling that neither they nor the scientists themselves can control genetically modified crops, which is a scary thought. Consumers feel uncertain due to terms like “may pose risks,” “unreliable,” “source of dispute,” “raises risk,” and “experts discuss concern.” And all the possible consequences are negative, as can be seen by words like “cancer risk,” “environmental risk,” “health fears,” “kill,” and “disaster.” The outcome of these fear appeals is a fearful consumer.
What influence does this fearful consumer have? At this moment there are no GMFs on the European market, even though this is legally allowed. Many food companies are afraid that whoever markets genetically modified products will see its sales decrease and receive negative public attention. The market potential of GMF thus seems small due to the intense fear.
Overview of Findings
Does GMF really cause more fear than other food products? In our first study we develop and test a scale of fear, and show that Dutch consumers feel indeed significantly more fearful of GMF than of other new food types (functional food, organic food) and regular food.
Can consumers’ socio-demographic characteristics be related to their fear? In the second study we find that there are no strong relations between consumers’ socio-demographic make-up and fear of GMF, indicating that fear of this technologically new type of food is an emotion that cuts across the entire society.
What are the causes and consequences of fear of GMF? In the third study we develop and test a conceptual model of key causes and consequences of fear of GMF. The feelings of fear were higher among people who are strongly concerned about nature, and lower for those consumers who have faith in the use of technology in food production. These findings suggest that fear of GMF is a complex phenomenon that deals with general values concerning what is ethical in relation to nature and technology. Fear had a large impact on the attitude toward genetic modification of food and animals. This suggests that the inclusion of relevant emotions such as fear is necessary to more fully explain consumer attitudes toward sensitive issues. Fear had a positive influence on interest in information concerning food production, suggesting that these consumers are more open for information. This does not necessarily mean, however, that providing information results in less fear, since providing information may evoke rather than reduce fear (Grunert et al., 2001; Scholderer and Frewer, 2003).
GMFs are an interesting research topic due to the polarization of opinions these products cause across the world. We know now a lot about the opinion of consumers and the cognitive associations with GMF, but we know little about the emotions GMFs evoke in consumers. This research examined the fear that consumers experience when thinking about GMF. The results indicate that consumers are more fearful of GMF than of other new food products. And this emotion occurs across the whole population. In addition we conclude that general values affect fear of GMF, which in turn influences the attitude toward GMF in general, toward genetic modification of animals, and the interest in information related to food production and genetic modification. These results highlight the importance of studying fear emotions in the context of GMF.
Implications for Public Policy
Do not overlook the emotions of consumers. For the introduction of controversial technologies like GMF, public policy makers should not only consider the objective risk estimates of experts, but also focus on the emotions of the population. We found that the emotion fear is highly relevant for GMF and that it has a very negative influence on the consumer’s attitude. Fear will also determine the rejection of consumers for a substantial part.
Fear of GMF is influenced by ethical values. The feelings of fear associated with GMF are influenced not so much by specific product attributes, but rather by values associated with the environment and technology (see also Grunert et al., 2003). The feelings towards GMF are thus very deeply rooted and related to process ethics rather than product benefits.
Fear of GMF is a nation-wide phenomenon. We found that the emotion fear exists across the total population. This makes it very difficult to identify who is afraid and how to target these consumers.
Do not overlook the influence of the media. The media have played an important role in the creation of fear of GMF in Europe. For consumers it is so much easier to rely on the popular press than on experts, because experts are in general more difficult to understand and reach for the layperson. Furthermore the popular press usually voices what the consumer wants to hear. Public policy makers should therefore take into account the messages in the media and their influence.
Since GMF will not be the last technology to be opposed and rejected by fearful consumers, these conclusions should be also considered when introducing other radical technologies. Technologies that evoke strong feelings of fear among the public have to be introduced with utmost care.
Laros, Fleur J.M., and Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp (2004), “Importance of Fear in the Case of Genetically Modified Food,” Psychology and Marketing, 21(11), 889-908.
Grunert, Klaus G., Liisa Lahteenmaki, Niels Asger Nielsen, Jacob B. Poulsen, Oydis Ueland, and Annika Astrom (2001), “Consumer Perceptions of Food Products involving Genetic Modification – Results from a Qualitative Study in Four Nordic Countries,” Food Quality and Preference, 12, 527-542.
Scholderer, Joachim, and Lynn J. Frewer (2003), “The Biotechnology Communication Paradox: Experimental Evidence and the Need for a New Strategy,” Journal of Consumer Policy, 26, 125-157.
|Back to the article||Terms and Conditions|