Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet

Consumer attitudes and behaviour

Here you can read summaries of some of the publications from our research. You can read more about the research projects here

Consumers’ unconscious decision-making

The food products we purchase have a number of labels and much information on the packages, and in the EU all food items that contain one or more ingredients that consist of more than 0.9% GMO have to be labelled. But how does the consumer view the packaging of food, does he or she notice the information and labelling of food such as health claims and environmental aspects? And how is his or her choice as a consumer affected by this information? Through an eye-tracking study, the researchers have tried to understand the unconscious mind that governs and rules consumer behaviour. The results show that when people are exposed to positive information and highly noticeable labelling, they seem to be induced to choose a GM product, or they can be scared off if negative information about the technology is emphasized. When it comes to biotechnology information, consumers are more than likely to follow the societal discourse for the technology – the consumer response is a result of what way the information about the technology is formulated. The effect of the negative framing is stronger than the impact on choice from a positive framing. However, and most importantly, this research shows that when people are not presented with a positive or negative information frame, they do not notice the label. In general, people are more “loss averse” than “gain seeking”, and they pay more attention to negative outcomes than to positive because the negative outcomes can be more dangerous.

 

In cognitive psychology, one differentiates between the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach includes more deliberate ways of thinking where one’s attitudes and attention play a role. If one likes or dislikes something, one is more likely to observe it. But there is also the bottom-up process, which is rapid and automatic. This is governed by the unconscious mind, and in this case one tends to pay attention to what stands out. We then automatically filter out if what we have in visual focus is relevant or not. An object that stands out can attract attention and eye movements irrespective of its relevance to current goals. It is assumed that the top-down and bottom-up processes interact, but little is known about which process dominates at what time during a decision-making situation. However, it is known that the bottom-up effect tends to be short-lived, and an unresolved question has been at what point the eye movement process shifts from being driven by bottom-up processes to being driven by top-down processes. The combination of the top-down and bottom-up indicates an interaction process between the two perspectives. These two systems operate together and to some extent are very much dependent on each other.

 

The results in the study show that there can be a learning effect so that people react differently to a new label. Both the top-down (as expected) but also the bottom-up process (not as expected) continue to be active over the course of the choice process. Thus information, as well as label design, needs to be continuously updated – there is no “once and for all” strategy that would work in the long run.

Article
Orquin, J., & Lagerkvist, C.J. 2015. Effects of salience are both short- and long-livedActa Psychologica 160: 69-76

EU consumers less negative about GMOs than previously believed

In a meta-study combining the results from over 1,600 questions in 241 different studies in 58 regions we show that previous conclusions on the Europeans' negative attitude towards GM food might be the result of slightly different questions having been asked in Europe compared to other countries.

Previous survey studies have shown that EU citizens are on average more negative than consumers in other regions when it comes to the use of biotechnology, such as genetic modification, in food production. There are countries in the EU where respondents of previous studies had indeed reacted more negatively than the average, i.e. Denmark and Rumania, but according to SLU findings this is offset by countries with a more positive attitude like Spain and the Netherlands. Examples of countries outside the EU with more positive views on GMOs in food are USA, India, China, and Uganda, while consumers in Norway, Switzerland, and Japan, were more negative to the same products.

The study confirms previous conclusions about how the wording and the context of the questions can affect the answers. Questions about biotechnology and genetic engineering in European surveys have asked more often about risk or moral and ethical aspects, and that way thus most likely influenced the answers in a negative direction.

The results also show that food consumers in general, regardless their country of origin, tend to be more afraid of the uncertain risk factors than they are optimistic about the potential benefits of biotechnology in food products. Lower price and better taste features build into food products did not affect their attitude significantly, however, food products with medicinal properties were overall viewed as promising.

Article
Hess, S., Lagerkvist, C. J., Redekop, W., & Pakseresht, A. 2016. Consumers’ evaluation of biotechnologically modified food products: new evidence from a meta-surveyEuropean Review of Agricultural Economics 43 (5): 703-736

Regulations affect our choice of genetically modified food

In Europe, there is a rather widespread contention that consumers are opposed to genetically modified (GM) food. This has been used to support the prevailing restrictive policy. However, the 2010 Eurobarometer survey suggested that Europeans have now become more optimistic about biotechnology in general, due to increased concerns about energy and sustainability. The increased optimism was previously not of great importance, but the European Commission recently proposed new rules allowing ‘opt-outs’ by member states from a Europe-wide approval system for food items derived from biotechnology.  This policy shift allows member states to institute an unlimited, or case-specific, moratorium on commercial release of GM foods within their respective territories and localities. Thus, regulations may soon vary across member states, allowing food value chain actors (including farmers, food processing companies, food retailers and policy makers) more autonomy regarding biotechnology adoption decisions.

A set of experiments was performed in Sweden to test whether changing the policy context and acceptance by upstream actors influence consumer acceptance of a GM product with direct tangible health benefits and indirect environmental benefits. The results indicated that acceptance was lower in more restrictive policy scenarios and higher in less restrictive contexts. Moreover, acceptance of upstream actors was policy context-dependent and differed between participants opposed to or accepting the technology. These studies show that consumers draw inferences from information about actions taken by upstream actors in the food chain and adapt their choices to these actions.

Article
Pakseresht, A., McFadden, B.R. & Lagerkvist, C.J. 2017. 
Consumer acceptance of food biotechnology based on policy context and upstream acceptance: evidence from an artefactual field experimentEuropean Review of Agricultural Economics 44:757-780

Stakeholder reservations against genetic modification do not apply to genome editing

Genetic modification has been highly debated since the first commercialized crop was introduced. Those who develop genetically modified crops face consumer concerns, strict regulations and rigorous testing. All this might be circumvented with the new biotechnological advancements such as the genome editing technique CRISPR/Cas9.

In her Master Thesis, Sanaz Habibi found that the most prevalent reservations against GMOs, from different stakeholders and anti-GM NGOs in Sweden, do not apply to the new technique. But whether genome editing will be available or not, and accepted among Swedish stakeholders, depends on its legal classification, which the EU Commission has yet to determine. Arguments that have been raised against GMO’s (ranked by no. of stakeholders listing)

1. Risks of endangering the biodiversity, ecosystem and environment
2. Unethical applications
3. Risks of endangering human and animal health
4. Corporate control and farmer dependence
5. Uncertainty of long-term effects
6. Unnaturalness

Sanaz Habibi also found that the stakeholder reservations against GMOs are often based on generalizations and misconceptions. Most of the concerns are based on the technology that is involved rather than the GMOs that are produced, reflecting conformity with the current GMO regulations. Many of the reservations against GMOs seem to lack relevance for the alternative methods of breeding, such as mutagenesis.

To put the issue of GMOs and genome editing techniques in a broader perspective, Sanaz compared how the reservations apply to conventional breeding. The comparison shows that the general reservations against GMOs also can be applied on conventional breeding.

Master thesis
Habibi, S. 2018. GMO perceptions among Swedish stakeholders and their implication on the acceptance of a new biotechnological advancement. Uppsala University ISSN 1650-6553 ; 2018/3

Consumers react negatively on the term "biotechnology"

Our appetite for fish has put a pressure on marine environment and a continued increase in demand means that fish farmers must supply larger volumes to prevent the depletion of the natural wild populations. In biotechnology, there are several tools and applications to increase the volume of farmed fish. As early as 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, approved a genetically modified fast-growing salmon developed for human consumption.

However, the word biotechnology is problematic. It creates confusion and uncertainty because many do not know what it means. If you were looking in the grocery store freezer for fish, and saw "biotechnology" on the packaging, what would you do? Choose another fish? Begin to think about labels on other fish packaging? Maybe you think "well, this fish was developed with the latest technology and adapted to modern fish farming"?

Researchers have studied how consumers react to the term "biotechnology" on packaging of fish, and observed how different labels (wild-caught, farmed, sterilized with hormones, sterilized with pressure treatment of newly fertilized eggs [which increases the number of chromosomes and therefore is considered as genetic modification], and so on) affect consumers' willingness to buy. They conclude that the labeling of genetically modified fish (which is not found in grocery stores in Sweden today) will confuse us consumers and may cause us to buy less fish. For some of the participants, it was enough if the label said "biotechnology" without any explanation, to make them choose a wild-caught fish instead.

The researchers investigated how much the people in the study were willing to pay for redfish and rainbow fish. Because genetically modified fish are not marketed in Sweden, the researchers designed packaging with different labels to be used in the study.  If the term "biotechnology" was included for the pressure treated fish, the positive image of wild-caught fish was reinforced (which was, however, considerably more expensive). Labeling with “biotechnology” also created a more negative attitude to fish that had been sterilized by pressure treatment. At the same time, the view got event more negative of the hormone treated fish (which is not genetic modification).

– Almost all consumers interpret the label "wild-caught fish" in the same way. This labeling is easy to understand because it describes the product in its most natural form, explains Carl Johan Lagerkvist, Professor in economics and one of the researchers behind the study.

Those who stated that they believe science has a positive impact on food quality did not opt out of fish labeled "biotechnology". The researchers saw a positive relationship between knowledge and the perception of biotechnology as something positive.

– When consumers base their choices on scientific rationality, they stop worrying about whether the product in question feels natural or not, says Carl Johan Lagerkvist.

– To make it possible to sell salmon which has been developed with the help of biotechnology in Sweden, the labeling on the packaging needs to be combined with efforts to reduce the confusion about the concept of biotechnology among consumers, says Carl Johan Lagerkvist.

He also points out that he finds it strange that hormone therapy was not perceived as more negative among the participants, since such treatment would entail risks of spreading hormone residues to the surrounding environment.

Article
Kulesz, M.M., Lundh, T., De Koning, D-J., & Lagerkvist C.J. 2019. Dissuasive effect, information provision, and consumer reactions to the term ´Biotechnology´: The case of reproductive interventions in farmed fishPLoS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222494

Published: 20 November 2019 - Page editor: anna.lehrman@slu.se
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