The Psychology of GMO Aversion

Maria Konnicova recently published an interesting post at the New Yorker entitled THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DISTRUSTING G.M.O.S.

Here is one tidbit:  

Psychologists have long observed that there is a continuum in what we perceive as natural or unnatural. As the psychologist Robert Sternberg wrote in 1982, the natural is what we find more familiar, while what we consider unnatural tends to be more novel—perceptually and experientially unfamiliar—and complex, meaning that more cognitive effort is required to understand it. The natural is seen as inherently positive; the unnatural is not. And anything that involves human manipulation is considered highly unnatural—like, say, G.M.O.s, even though genetically modified food already lines the shelves at grocery stores. As Michael Specter putit, “The history of agriculture is the history of humans breeding seeds and animals to produce traits we want in our crops and livestock.”

The author goes on to talk about the psychology research showing that people look at "unknown" or "novel" risks differently than those that seem more familiar or controllable.  It also appears acceptance of risk is related to perceived necessity.     

I have argued in several talks I've made recently that these are precisely the reasons for the gap between farmer attitudes and general consumer attitudes toward biotechnology,  growth hormones, pesticides, and gestation crates just to name a few.  The fact that farmers are around these technologies all the time and that they seem them as "necessary" goes a long way toward explaining their acceptance.  To this I'd add in some of Jonathan Haidt's observations about moral intuitions.  Here is what I said about that a while back:

What struck me as I read Haidt was his discussion on moral disagreement.  It is very had to change someone’s intuitions about what is right or wrong.  If we can’t even articulate the reasons why we think something is wrong, how can someone possibly make a compelling, reasoned counter-argument?  Haidt argues that trying to use reason to change someone’s moral intuition is a bit like trying to make a dog happy by grabbing its tail and wagging it. 
So, how is it that I intuitively feel so differently about various aspects of food production (e.g., biotechnology, irradiation, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) than others who are revolted by the same issues?  When I think about these issues, I am not appalled; I don’t feel any disgust.  But, I suspect I’m in the minority of Americans. 
I gave the Shepard lecture last night to a group of students and faculty at Kenyon College about the future of food.  Although we had a civil, productive discussion, it’s safe to say that many of the students in the room had different moral intuitions about these topics and I do.  Their moral intuitions are that many modern food technologies are self-evidently wrong (while other issues like local, organic, and natural are self-evidently right). 
How is it that our moral intuitions can be so different?  I grew up around “big ag.”  I’ve personally sprayed Monsanto’s Round-Up on hundreds of acres of cotton weeds.  I’ve personal castrated farm animals to limit aggression and off-tasting meat.  I’ve personally had to throw away thousands of pounds of salsa that grew mold because adequate levels of preservatives weren't added.  I’ve personally met and know people who work for Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, etc.  I grew up going to school with kids whose parents were immigrant farm laborers living at or below poverty. 
Now, that doesn’t necessarily make my intuitions about modern food production somehow objectively correct.  But, I at least can lay claim to the fact that they are based on actual life experiences and insights. 

 I've previously touched on some of the psychology factors driving aversion to risk and to GMOs here and here.