Are today’s consumers denying science?

Let’s take a look at the realities of how consumers interact with today’s food system.  

  • Never before have consumers wanted to know more about food, yet lacked direct access to it.
  • Never before have consumers had as much contradictory information coming at them, yet lacked a simple solution to decipher sound science and facts from rumors, hearsay, and flawed data.
  • Never before have we been equipped with more digital apps, sites and barcode readers, yet lacked the specialized education to interpret why the information being shared is there at all.

Consumers are almost completely disconnected from production of the food they eat, yet, they are completely reliant upon the system from which it comes. They have many great questions, some concerns, and some skepticism about why the food system looks the way it does, where food is grown, how animals are raised and who is making decisions. But when those in the food system do provide information, sometimes it’s perceived as biased – maybe even fake. 

This presents a challenge, and it offers unprecedented opportunity. How can those involved in farming and food have conversations with a consuming public that doesn’t fully understand food production and doubts the science?

Is what we’re seeing on social media and hearing in the public actually true?
Here are some factors we know to be true about people, psychology and the way people communicate.

Factor 1: A psychological phenomenon we all experience is Cognitive Bias. It allows our preferences, beliefs and biases to override information or sources that pose a new viewpoint. Often, when we search for information online, we find information that confirms what we already know or believe. We all have inherent biases based on our experiences. If we can assume positive intent, we have an opportunity to be less offended and move conversations forward.

Factor 2: The Dunning–Kruger effect causes people to overestimate their abilities. The effect was discovered after a series of investigations found that people who scored in the lowest percentiles on tests of grammar, humor and logic also tended to dramatically overestimate their performance. Read more about this theory and the research involved here.

We regularly see this on social media when our acquaintances post links to articles with a soliloquy on why everyone should avoid one type of food completely, or wear patches and drink supplements for more energy, or avoid all foods that contain a specific ingredient – or even too many ingredients. What’s most consistent about these recommendations 

Factor 3: We can be a very risk-averse society. Especially as it relates to making decisions for members of our family. Take vaccines, for example. When fact-based information is provided, the information alone will not inspire confidence in the potential risk or benefits. When making the decision to vaccinate or not, research shows that people consider both information as well as those who are providing the information. If it’s perceived there is incorrect information related to risks or benefits, that also helps one choose whether the information and source are trustworthy.

Most vaccinated diseases are nearly non-existent (save for recent measles outbreaks). When there don’t appear to be clear/present risks, it’s hard to rationalize introducing what is perceived as unnecessary risk (i.e. injecting a toxin into a child’s body) when the benefit is already largely enjoyed by the vast majority of the population.

That brings us back to the original question… is science denial real? I say no. Not only because there are many other factors at play, but also because we know a bit about what it takes to build trust. There’s hope to better connect with those questioning the food system.

So, what do we do about it?

Trust allows us to earn and maintain the social license, which ultimately grants freedom to operate with minimal, reasonable, formalized restrictions to get products to the marketplace that desires them.

Look-East-Trust-Model

In trust-building conversations, we found that shared values are three-to-five times more important than facts. That’s not to say that facts aren’t important. Actually, they’re imperative, but the way we use them, is extremely sensitive with consumers. To meet this consumer need, food and agriculture have to start business decisions and conversations by grounding them in ethics.

We cannot abandon science and economics. They are critical to verify what we’re doing is the correct action, but we use them to back up our values-based foundation for a statement that will resonate with them and connect with them.

Finding Common Ground

Who are you? How are you similar to the people with whom you’re trying to connect? Why are you passionate about food/farming? Once you find common ground and learn what the consumer is truly concerned about and interested in, then you can start having and active dialogue.

What if you find someone who absolutely disagrees about a subject you’re passionate about? Remember it’s not your job to persuade them, educate them or correct their misinformation. When we meet people with differing opinions, perspectives, or understanding about food and farming, we need to be completely accepting of their viewpoint.

Through three simple steps, you can find common ground to begin growing trust.

  1. Set aside judgment and truly listen to them
  2. Acknowledge their viewpoint and ask questions to understand more about how they developed it.
  3. Share your passions and values along with the facts you understand.

Whether in person, online, with family or perfect strangers, skepticism persists, and perception is the reality through which consumers make decisions. Let’s use concern and skepticism as the fuel for conversation and discovery. Learn more about how to connect with values through Navigate training.


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