Implicit attitudes: Are we biased about the foods we buy?

(This entry was originally posted in May, 2006)

ResearchBlogging.orgWe'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

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It worked the opposite for me. I see GM foods as generally pleasant (since they're the ones made over to suit our tastes and/or our buying habits.). So "unpleasant" and "GM" are opposites, and I could tick off all the ones on the second list, without even thinking about them.

I got the implicitly bad - but I'm also on the explicitly bad side. Is that supposed to make a difference?

BTW, I get the "explicitly bad" as someone who works in biological sciences and is interested in food and the politics thereof. I'm not scared of teh DNA in my fud. I'm scared of the large agribusiness practices causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity in our food crops and animals.

A lot of biological scientists that I know share this view. Safe to eat? Duh, of course. Safe to grow? Well, that's a *much* more complicated question.

I think Susannah is very naive in suggesting that modern engineered GM might be for improved taste. It's not. It's almost always about company profits, by reducing costs on pesticides, transport, spoilage etc. If you want taste, you have to go to the old-fashioned producers who actually care about their product, not just the bottom line.

Cath the Canberra Cook is right in the last paragraph. Heirloom tomatoes have it all over the perfect looking ones in seed catalogs as far as flavor goes, I had some bi-color sweet corn this summer that was so sweet it had really no "corn" flavor. These are just two examples of how we seem to be getting away from the way food traditionally tasted and was grown.

Perhaps reverse the wording leading up to the poll. I accidentally voted for the wrong one, since the leading sentence asks, "Which task was harder," but the poll asks which one was easier.

I found the first task to be more difficult.

In this particular survey, looking at the large number of ambivalent responses, there's unlikely to be any significant correlation.

By vineetgupta (not verified) on 28 Nov 2008 #permalink

I agree, I found it hard to do the first list, because it seemed that I had words that didn't fit into either category, or words that fit into both, but not words that fit into one OR the other. I personally thing genetically modified food is great, as well as irradiation, and all this other "scary" stuff that keeps the population healthy.

I found that I implicitly associate the GM products with the negative words (I tried with both lists), although explicitly I'm very much in favor of GM products.

I feel like maybe the implicit associations are more a reflection of my culture, and what I think the people around me believe, rather than my own opinion. Or maybe the anti-GM crowd just really has good marketing.

I agree that the poll is misleading. Since the question in the above sentence is the opposite of what the poll is asking, it is very easy to confuse which response you mean to hit. I know I clicked the wrong one, and I didn't even realize it until reading through the comments! It would be interesting to see what the general implicit attitude was for all the people who participated.

I don't go for GM products so I chose it as unpleasant. Nothing can beat the healthy benefits of organically grown food. The poll shows the same sentiment. For healthy buff like me, it takes a jiffy to cast my "vote"