Assessing Public Trust and Perceptions of Risk
Public perceptions of nanotechnology will inform the study and
utilization of nanotechnology by individuals in the for-profit sector
and by academic scientists. Furthermore, the level of the public’s
trust will determine whether commercial products containing
nanotechnology will be embraced because of their perceived benefits or
avoided due to fears. The importance of public trust and acceptance is
a lesson already learned by corporations and governments who have found
that both real and imagined hazards of nuclear power, genetically
modified organisms, biotechnology, and semiconductor manufacturing have
played a key role in their development. Public trust in any new
technology determines the willingness by individuals to purchase
products based on these technologies and their willingness to work in
companies where these technologies are developed or manufactured.
Through our research, we will develop an understanding of how the
public currently perceives nanotechnology, and this information will in
turn provide guidance to corporations and governments who wish to avoid
public backlash as has been seen in previous technologies (e.g., genetically modified organisms).
Our research program will contribute to a deeper understanding of the public’s perceptions of nanotechnology by:
As a foundation for our work on nanotechnology, we have developed a theoretical model of trust in new technologies.
Based on our studies of trust in a variety or organizational contexts,
we define trust as the decision to rely on a target under a condition
of risk. Our focus on nanotechnology applications as targets of trust
allows us to investigate public perceptions of nanotechnology as well
as test a general model of trust and risk perception. This theoretical
model proposes that attitudes toward new technologies, societal
influences, and individual differences in affect and cognition predict
intentions to engage in trusting behaviors. These intentions, in turn,
lead to trusting behavior (i.e., using a product developed through nanotechnology).
We are applying our model of trust in new technology in two
complementary studies of public trust in nanotechnology. First, we will
assess the public’s trust based on data from a representative sample of
survey respondents across the United States. This sample also will be
used to investigate the psychological factors (i.e., risks and
benefits) that contribute to trust or lack of trust in nanotechnology.
Respondents will be presented with information about hypothetical
commercial products that are described as containing nanotechnology.
We will experimentally vary risks and benefits associated with these
products to examine how people choose whether or not they would use (i.e.,
trust) these products. This study will allow us to test the relative
importance of the target of risk as well as the risk/benefit ratio in
predicting trusting behaviors toward nanotechnology.
Second, our model of trust and risk perception will be tested
through an extensive laboratory study that requires participants to
evaluate hypothetical nanotechnology products in comparison to each
other and to other technologies. We also are studying whether
corporations that are seen as associated with nanotechnology will
benefit from or be negatively affected by this association. Finally, we
will investigate the extent to which organizations associated with
nanotechnology can maintain or improve public perceptions.
Across both studies, we will include a baseline measure of the
general public’s knowledge of nanotechnology. Initial studies suggest
that many people know very little about nanotechnology, but few studies
have taken an in-depth look at the characteristics of individuals with
varying levels of knowledge about nanotechnology. We will contribute to
this literature by asking participants to describe what they know about
nanotechnology as well as the overall positivity or negativity of their
feelings toward nanotechnology.
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