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The Future of Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: An Experimental Investigation

How will Americans react as they learn more about this novel science? Will popular attitudes be guided by the best available scientific evidence? Or will other influences affect public perceptions of nanotechnology risks This paper reports the result of an experimental investigation of these questions.

This paper reports the results of an experiment designed to test competing conjectures about the evolution of public attitudes toward nanotechnology. The "rational enlightenment" hypothesis holds that members of the public will become favorably disposed to nanotechnology as balanced and accurate information about it disseminates. The “cultural cognition" hypothesis, in contrast, holds that members of the public are likely to polarize along cultural lines when exposed to such information. Using a between-subjects design (N = 1,862), the experiment compared the perceptions of subjects exposed to balanced information on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology to the perceptions of subjects exposed to no information. The results strongly confirmed the cultural polarization hypothesis and furnished no support for the rational enlightenment hypothesis. Data obtained in the experiment also suggested that the observed correlation in the general public between familiarity with nanotechnology and a positive view of it is spurious: familiarity does not cause a favorable view; rather other influences, including individualistic cultural values, incline certain individuals both to form a positive view and to learn about nanotechnology. The paper also discusses the implications of these findings for promoting informed public understandings of nanotechnology.


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