How our brains analyze risk may help to open conversation to consumers

Language and method of delivery matter in the ability to overcome emotional responses

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Dan Gardner, a New York Times best-selling author, explained at a recent food integrity forum that knowing how the human brain works when analyzing risk can be used to open conversations between producers and consumers.

He told those attending the 2019 Canadian Centre for Food Integrity Food System Forum Series, that the consumer is becoming more removed from where their food comes from and how it is produced.

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Why it matters: If agriculture industry players can learn how to address the psychology that has consumers turning away from modern food production methods, they can be better understood.

Gardner says people use their experience and senses to make judgments and don’t base decisions only on facts and statistics.

He says people have two systems to process thought: system one and system two. System one is based on experience, it is quick and intuitive. System two is conscious thought, thinking logically. It is the process that helps to overcome “gut feelings.”

Johnathan Height, a psychologist, came up with a metaphor. Think of a rider and an elephant.

“The rider thinks they are in charge and the rider does have some influence, but the elephant is really dominant in the decision making,” says Gardner. “If the rider wants to go left, but the elephant wants to go right, the rider and elephant will be going right.”

With the elephant, the unconscious way of thinking, being in charge, people must better understand how emotions drive its decisions to have any hope of influencing those decisions.

When people think like the elephant, they put emotional labels on things. It is the method of the brain that analyzes contamination and disgust. It was a way of survival, an instinct, in the stone age.

In today’s world, the elephant looks at an apple with trace quantities of pesticides and wants to stay away. Yet the rider is telling the elephant it is OK to eat because the pesticides are in such minute quantities it won’t affect health.

“But the elephant doesn’t do parts per million, it does contamination and disgust, the amount doesn’t matter and those apples are contaminated,” says Gardner.

People’s emotional systems also like to stay away from unfamiliar territory.

“This applies to GMOs. Does the average person understand what GMOs are? It’s a new thing and you’re going to put it into food, it’s inherently threatening on a psychological level, on the elephant level,” says Gardner.

Yet trying to convince the elephant — or a person driven by emotion — to change their minds by throwing facts and science their way won’t work.

It is best to remember that the rider is the only one who understands the facts and the statistics. Producers and others in the agricultural industry must speak to the emotional or the elephant side of the brain if they want to change emotional judgments.

Gardner said if the ag industry speaks to consumers in positive fashions and shares the benefits of agriculture production, the risk perception of agriculture will go down because the benefit perception has increased.

As well, language is far more influential than people realize. System one relates to words and emotions, over statistics.

“If I say that ground beef is 80 per cent lean versus ground beef that is 20 per cent fat, the rider says ‘those are the same things’, the elephant says ‘no I’ll take the lean ground beef please,’” says Gardner.

About the author

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Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.

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