When developers seem fair, new tech looks less risky

When evaluating the potential risks of new technology, people consider whether developers behave fairly or simply portray themselves as experts without engaging the community, new Cornell research has found.

People who view developers as fair also perceive less risk from the technology. They are also more likely to seek out news stories that portray the technology positively, rather than clicking on items that emphasize the downsides, according to the study, “The Role of Fairness in Early Characterization of New Technologies: Effects on Selective Exposure and Risk Perception,” published Nov. 11 in the journal Risk Analysis.

“This study addresses important questions for developers of new technologies who become puzzled because they don’t understand why the public doesn’t just trust them, since they are the experts,” said senior author Katherine McComas, professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs.

“Expertise is important, but it’s not the only thing,” McComas said. “If we want to give these technologies a fair shot, you have to involve people in the decisions that affect them and their community. Leaving the decision-making to technical experts who don’t consult the public could leave people thinking they don’t have a voice, and that they’re more at risk.”

The study’s co-lead authors are Hwanseok Song, Ph.D. ’18, assistant professor in Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication; and Hang Lu, M.S. ’17, Ph.D. ’18, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan.

Public risk perception is an important concern for organizations seeking to promote new technologies, with the potential to slow or derail their widespread adoption. For example, genetically modified foods experienced intense opposition after heavy coverage of their risks, rather than their potential advantages. Without readily available, reliable information about a new technology, members of the public may make gut decisions about its safety.

To explore how people make these decisions, the researchers collected public sentiment on enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), which use drilling to tap deep underground sources of heat and are unfamiliar to most Americans. Though EGS could become an effective source of clean, renewable energy, its drilling and injection processes pose risks of increased seismic activity.

The researchers conducted an experimental survey of 1,084 participants who read about one of two scenarios – one in which energy developers engaged with the community through public meetings and other efforts, and one where the developers’ level of expertise enabled them to bypass community input.

They then offered participants lists of potential follow-up stories, some of which portrayed EGS positively and others negatively, to see how their perceptions of fairness impacted which kinds of stories they chose to read.

The study found that people who’d read about the developers who worked closely with the community were more likely to view EGS positively and consider the possible risks more controllable and less frightening. These participants were also more likely to choose positive news stories about the energy technology, the study found – in keeping with past research showing that people tend to seek out stories confirming their existing views.

“When we’re forming these impressions, information is so easily obtained – it’s just a click away,” McComas said. “It’s helpful to know whether these impressions will lead to behaviors that reinforce negative or positive first impressions.”

Very little research has examined public perceptions of EGS, the researchers said. In addition to shedding light on how people might respond to it, McComas said the study offers lessons to developers of a range of technologies about how to gain and build trust in new products or approaches.

“The best risk communication should allow people to come to an informed judgment,” McComas said. “We’re not trying to convince people that enhanced geothermal is the right thing for them, or wind farms or a solar farm or carbon capture and sequestration. What we need to do is to involve people in the decisions so they can understand them, and so they can provide substantive input to help make better decisions.”

This project was funded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability through a 2015 Academic Venture Fund award.

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Jeff Tyson