Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifWe’ve discussed implicit attitudes on Cognitive Daily before, but never in the context of food. The standard implicit attitude task asks you to identify items belonging to two different categories. Consider the following lists. Use your mouse to click on items which are either pleasant or related to Genetically Modified foods (GM foods). (Clicking won’t actually do anything, it’s just a way of self-monitoring your progress)

GE livestock

Now with this next list, do the same task, only click on items which are either unpleasant or related to GM foods.

GM plants
Engineered salmon
Modified tomatoes

Which task was harder? I’m including a poll below the fold for you to register your results.

If you implicitly have a negative association with GM foods, it should be more difficult for you to identify GM foods while also identifying pleasant things. If you have a positive association with GM foods, then the pleasant task should be easier.

Many surveys have been conducted to measure explicit attitudes about GM foods, but few have looked at implicit attitudes. The explicit results vary by country, with Britain ambivalent, France and Greece (among others) negative, and Spain and Finland (among others) positive.

Alexa Spence and Ellen Townsend conducted a study of implicit attitudes about GM foods in Britain. They argue that it’s important to measure both implicit and explicit attitudes because people tend to behave based on both types of attitudes, not just one or the other. They gave the test in three different contexts: no context, like the task I had you try above, with ordinary foods (e.g. GM foods and ordinary foods were included in the list, along with the pleasant and unpleasant foods), and with organic foods. They used a computer to measure reaction times to the GM foods. Here are the results:


Without a context, participants were significantly quicker when asked to identify GM foods or pleasant things, compared to identifying GM foods or unpleasant things. In the context of both organic foods and ordinary foods, there was no significant difference in reaction times, whether being asked to identify pleasant or unpleasant things along with GM foods.

When asked explicitly about attitudes to GM foods, the response was similar. So, at least in Britain, both implicit and explicit attitudes about GM foods range from positive to ambivalent. Spence and Townsend argue that this means that British consumers would likely be willing to eat GM foods, especially if they were cheaper or better than ordinary foods.

Often people are surprised by the results of implicit attitude tests. For example, many African Americans are surprised to find that they implicitly prefer white people, even if explicitly they claim to regard whites and African Americans equally.

Is this result surprising to you? How did you do on our nonscientific sample test above? Let us know in the comments.

Spence, A., & Townsend, E. (2006). Implicit attitudes towards genetically modified (GM) foods: A comparison of context-free and context-dependent evaluations. Appetite, 46, 67-74.


  1. #1 Jokermage
    May 24, 2006

    I recently took an Implicit attutide test that compared Asian people and European people with American landmarks and Foreign landmarks. The conclusion of the test was that I associate Asians with American landmarks and Europeans with Foreign landmarks. I’m not really sure what that means though.

  2. #2 Stephen Downes
    May 24, 2006

    Well, there’s always the issue regarding precision concerning what is being measured. My negative association may be with the manner in which GM foods are currently sold (specifically, as patented non-replicable goods) rather than with GM foods themselves. Or it may be with the vendors of GM foods (Monsanto and others, which are major agricorporations) rather than the foods themselves. And just so, it is possible that what blacks positively associate is the material well-being of whites, the advantages they have in society, or their education, rather than, say, the whiteness of their skin.

  3. #3 Gordon Worley
    May 25, 2006

    While not appropriate for the casual setting of the Web, I hope any real studies using this method have participants do a few test runs on unrelated material to be sure they are comfortable with the task. I found myself having a harder time with the first list than the second, but I was a little uncertain about the task and going extra slow to make sure I did it correctly. So although I was faster on the second list, I suspect I might have had a similar reaction time for the first list if it had been second.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    May 25, 2006

    Gordon: Good points: in the official test, they give practice trials. And they also vary the order of the tasks between participants.

    Despite this effect, so far it appears that our readers implicitly prefer non-GM foods.

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