Framing Effect on Public Opinion about Nanotechnology
Cobb, Michael D.
Vol. 27, Num. 2
Cobb investigates the outcome of framing nanotechnology according to its potential risks versus its benefits, and whether frames using fundamental philosophical positions about the merits of science can affect opinions. He begins by raising a question: Why study the framing of nanotechnology if mass preferences are not thought to dictate scientific policy choices?
He answers, first, policy makers are thought to be responsive to the general policy direction favored by mass opinion (Page and Shapiro 1992). Elites might not implement specific policy because of public opinion, but they are more likely to fund some scientific projects, and not others, when public preferences support the policy decision&. A second reason is that opinions about nanotechnology could be radically altered by exposure to dramatic events and new information because Americans opinions about nanotechnology are based on a minimal amount of factual knowledge (Cobb and Macoubrie 2004). Thus, this experiment might suggest where future opinions might go.
Americans are settling into largely uninformed opinions about nanotechnology. External cues -- trust in scientists, regulators, the media -- are part of the frame in which these opinions are shaped. What is issue framing? Issue framing is "the process of selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues over their alternatives and making connections among them with the objective of promoting a particular interpretation or evaluation and a preferred solution. Abortion, for example, is typically framed by one side of the debate as 'the right to choose' and by the other side as 'abortion is murder.'" Cobb expected weak framing effects because Americans are not generally knowledgeable or polarized around the issue of nanotechnology, but frames emphasizing risks were expected to be more powerful than those emphasizing benefits.
Cobb describes his research acitivities as follows: "To examine potential framing effects on opinions about nanotechnology, I conducted an experiment embedded within a nationally representative phone survey. This survey of public attitudes about nanotechnology was a random-digit- dialed survey of adults eighteen years or older in the continental United States between late March and early April of 2004 (N = 1,536). Respondents were randomly assigned to one of ten experimental conditions: an over-sampled control group (N = 330) or one of nine unique framing conditions about the risks or benefits of nanotechnology (N = 134, each). Respondents in all conditions, even the control group, heard a brief, objective description about nanotechnology. Next, respondents in each of the nine framing conditions heard a distinct way of framing nanotechnology. In six of the experimental conditions, respondents listened to one-sided frames. Three of the one-sided frames were 'pro' and three were 'anti' nanotechnology. The remaining three conditions are two-sided frames that pit each of the preceding 'pro' frames against their equivalent antinanotechnology frames. Substantive questions about nanotechnology were then asked immediately following the frames."
His results showed that "risk frames were somewhat more effective than benefit frames, but this apparently occurs only when risk and benefit frames are heard in isolation of one another. In a balanced information environment, then, ambivalence rather than opinion change is a more plausible outcome." Cobb expects a change in opinions about nanotechnology in future because "respondents perceptions were not fundamentally altered in this study even though they were significantly affected. Opinions never completely reversed from support to opposition, for example, or from un-trusting to trusting."
He concludes: "the results presented here suggest that Americans opinions about nanotechnology are malleable but that there are limits to changing their opinions. Americans begin with a basically positive view of nanotechnology anddespite its weak factual basisthis view remains surprisingly constant even when exposed to negative frames. Other main findings include: (1) even in an area with opinions based on little specific knowledge, general frames (overall attitudes toward science) produced less effect; (2) positive frames were sometimes almost as efficacious as negative ones, in contrast to past findings; and (3) trust of elites was low and easily driven lower by negative frames. Studies like this one provide important insights into the effect of framing on a broad category of public policycomplex issues where the public is ill-informed and knows it. Thus, the findings here may well have implications for framing in other areas, including tax policy, weapons policy, and complex social programs.