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Trust, the Asymmetry Principle, and the Role of Prior Beliefs

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Within the risk literature there is an ongoing debate on whether trust is vulnerable or enduring. Previous research on nuclear energy by Slovic in 1993 has shown that negative events have much greater impact on self-reported trust than do positive events. Slovic attributes this to the asymmetry principle: specifically, that trust is much easier to destroy than to create. In a questionnaire survey concerning genetically modified (GM) food in Britain (n= 396) we similarly find that negative events have a greater impact on trust than positive events. Because public opinion in Britain is skewed in the direction of opposition toward GM food, the pattern of results could either be caused by the fact that negative information is more informative than positive information (a negativity bias) or reflect the influence of people's prior attitudes toward the issue (a confirmatory bias). The results were largely in line with the confirmatory bias hypothesis: participants with clear positive or negative beliefs interpreted events in line with their existing attitude position. However, for participants with intermediate attitudes, negative items still had greater impact than the positive. This latter finding suggests that, congruent with the negativity bias hypothesis, negative information may still be more informative than positive information for undecided people. The study also identified the labeling of GM products, consulting the public, making biotechnology companies liable for any damage, and making a test available to detect GM produce as being particularly important preconditions for maintaining trust in the regulation of agricultural biotechnology.
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Keywords: Asymmetry principle; genetically modified food; prior attitudes; trust

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre for Environmental Risk, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK.

Publication date: 2004-12-01

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