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Study at Yale Finds Emotions and Values Shape How People Think of Nanotechnology


New Haven, Conn. — The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, today released the results of a study on how people evaluate the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is a field of applied science that studies, manipulates and manufactures extremely small things, usually measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers in width.

Results of the study of 1,800 people who participated in an online survey revealed that emotions and individual values play key roles in people’s perceptions of nanotechnology.

“Members of the public are likely to polarize on the safety of nanotechnology along exactly the same lines that now characterize disputes over nuclear power, global warming and other contentious environmental issues,” said Dan M. Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School. “People who know little or nothing about this new technology instantly react in an emotionally charged way. They go with their gut instinct.”

The second major finding is that individuals’ values determine their reaction to information about nanotechnology. The research compared the views of subjects who received information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology to those who did not.

“We found that when people who hold largely ‘individualistic’ values—and who tend to dismiss claims that commerce and industry are dangerous and need regulation—receive information about nanotechnology, they tend to focus on the benefits,” Kahan said. “When those who hold ‘egalitarian’ and ‘communitarian’ values—and who are relatively more community-oriented and sensitive to environmental and technological risks—get the same information, they focus on the risks.”

“Social psychologists call this a polarization effect,” said Kahan, who added that the Cultural Cognition Project team plans to engage in future research on ways to communicate about nanotechnology that doesn’t polarize people.

The study also confirmed a major finding of an earlier poll conducted by Hart Research that Americans remain largely unaware of nanotechnology—despite the fact that government and industry invest $10 billion annually in nanotechnology research and development and more than $30 billion in products incorporating nanotechnology were sold in 2005.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School is an interdisciplinary team of experts from Yale, the University of Washington, George Washington University and Decision Research (an independent, nonprofit research corporation) that uses survey data to explore how cultural orientation affects people’s views on political issues. For more information, visit the Cultural Cognition Project online.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies online.

A summary of the study findings is available at the Cultural Cognition Project website. This study was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.


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