What’s in a name? How we define nanotech shapes public reactions

  • Ashley A. Anderson
  • Jiyoun Kim
  • Dietram A. Scheufele
  • Dominique Brossard
  • Michael A. Xenos


Audiences are most likely to form their opinions about issues based on the aspects that are primed and easily available in their minds (Hastie and Park, Psychol Rev 93:258–268, 1986; Tversky and Kahneman, Cogn Psychol 5:207–232, 1973). In this study, we examine how priming people with various definitions of nanotechnology differently shapes public perceptions of and engagement with the technology. Using a randomized experimental design embedded in a representative survey of the U.S. population (n = 1,736), we find that defining nanotechnology in terms of novel applications increases public support for nanotechnology but does not motivate audiences to gather more information about it. In contrast, definitions highlighting the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology can increase likelihood of future information seeking.


Public opinion Public engagement Nanotechnology Definition 


Unfamiliarity with emerging technologies does not prevent people from forming an opinion about them (Peter and Hart Associates 2006, 2007, 2009; Scheufele and Lewenstein 2005). In fact, individuals form attitudes about issues based on a limited set of available pieces of information in their minds (Folkes 1988; Hastie and Park 1986; Kunreuther 2001; Scheufele and Lewenstein 2005; Schwarz et al. 1991; Tversky and Kahneman 1973). As a result, the way we define nanotechnology in public outreach, news media, and public opinion surveys may directly shape how lay audiences think about them (Kahan 2009; Cobb 2005). A comprehensive understanding of nanotechnology involves at least four basic dimensions: (1) an understanding of the scale and novelty at the nanoscale; (2) an awareness of the properties and potential controlled manipulation at the nanoscale; (3) a knowledge of new nano-applications; and (4) an awareness of potential risks and benefits (NISE Network Content Map).

To test whether exposure to different definitions of nanotechnology leads to varying levels of support and likelihood of seeking more information about nanotechnology among the lay public, we embedded an experimental design into a representative sample survey of 1,736 people in the United States. We exposed people at random to one of three definitions—based on applications, risks and benefits, or a combination of the two—and compared their support for nanotechnology and interest in more information about nanotechnology across the three conditions.

First, people’s support for nanotechnology increases when introduced to nanotechnology in the context of applications. The applications-based definition highlighted two potential new applications of nanotechnology, including a beneficial one—the targeted delivery of drugs—and a risky one—nearly invisible surveillance devices (see Table S1, for the full wording of the definitions). Those who were exposed to the applications-based definition were significantly more likely to support nanotechnology (M = 5.42, SD = 2.59) than those who were exposed to a definition based on risks and benefits (M = 4.82, SD = 2.43, p ≤ .01) or a comprehensive definition highlighting both application-based and risk/benefit-based descriptions (M = 5.07, SD = 2.50 p ≤ .001).

Second, exposure to a definition of nanotechnology highlighting the risks and benefits encouraged interest in more information about nanotechnology. The risks- and benefits-based definition did not mention applications, but emphasized the fact that nanotechnology can both improve everyday life and have harmful effects on society. Those who were exposed to this definition were significantly more likely to report they would like more information about nanotechnology before making a decision about it (M = 7.20, SD = 2.69) than those who were exposed to a definition based on applications (M = 6.53, SD = 2.94, p ≤ .01) or a comprehensive definition (M = 6.54, SD = 2.97, p ≤ .01).

Of course, the assumption that all members of the public react similarly to these definitional stimuli is potentially simplistic. In fact, it may be reasonable to assume that those respondents with higher levels of science education may be less susceptible to different definitions, given the role that their higher levels of preexisting knowledge and information seeking may play in forming opinions. Therefore, we examined whether those with varying levels of science education responded differently to the definitions.

First, we assessed whether those without a college degree, those with a college degree, and those with a college degree in a science-related field reported different levels of public support based on exposure to different definitions (see Fig. 1). We found that both applications-based (M = 6.74, SD = 2.46) and risks- and benefits-based (M = 6.71, SD = 2.31) definitions encouraged about as much support for nanotechnology among those who have a college degree in a science-related field. Additionally, exposure to a comprehensive definition significantly reduced support for nanotechnology among people with a college degree in science (M = 5.51, SD = 2.47, p ≤ .01). Among those who have a college degree in a non-science-related field and those who did not receive a college degree at all, exposure to the applications of nanotechnology significantly increased their support for nanotechnology (non-science college degree: M = 5.69, SD = 2.55; no college degree: M = 4.93, SD = 2.51) compared to exposure to the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (non-science college degree: M = 4.81, SD = 2.33, p ≤ .001; no college degree: M = 4.31, SD = 2.27, p ≤ .001).
Fig. 1

Definitional effects on support for nanotechnology across different educational backgrounds

These results suggest that definitions highlighting risks resonate more among respondents without a degree in science. This may be in part due to the fact that less educated respondents also lack well-developed stores of information about nanotechnology from which to draw in order to evaluate and potentially counter negative information when forming opinions. Moreover, since people tend to put more weight on negative information than on positive information when making decisions (Kahneman and Tversky 1979), those without a science degree tend to rely more heavily on the risks and, thus, develop a more negative attitude toward nanotechnology.

We also investigated whether the various definitions played a differential role in encouraging information seeking among individuals with different educational backgrounds (see Fig. 2). Among those with a college degree in science, exposure to a risks- and benefits-based definition indeed encouraged interest in more information (M = 6.38, SD = 2.76) than exposure to an applications-based definition did (M = 5.35, SD = 2.84, p ≤ .05). Among those with a college degree in a non-science subject, exposure to both applications (M = 6.86, SD = 2.78) and risks and benefits (M = 6.82, SD = 2.50) was more likely than exposure to a comprehensive definition (M = 6.15, SD = 2.91, p ≤ .05) to encourage interest in more information about nano. Among those who do not have a college degree, exposure to the risks and the benefits was more likely to develop interest in more information (M = 7.62, SD = 2.71) than exposure to applications (M = 6.71, SD = 2.96, p ≤ .001) or a comprehensive definition (M = 6.93, SD = 2.97, p ≤ .01) were.
Fig. 2

Definitional effects on need for more information across different educational backgrounds

Our results demonstrate that respondents without a science degree who are exposed to either a definition based on risks and benefits or on applications can encourage their likelihood of seeking more information. This suggests that definitions focused on particular aspects of nanotechnology rather than a comprehensive account of nanotechnology will encourage future interest among those without a science degree, who are less likely to have a long-term interest in scientific issues in the first place.

The nature of the applications presented in the application definition may have played a part in how people responded to it. The beneficial application, targeted drug delivery, may activate thoughts about the promise of preventing illness or fatality, which may be a potentially more personal benefit for people than the risky application, nearly invisible surveillance devices, which may be more related to science fiction in people’s minds.

In sum, we have shown that introducing the issue of nanotechnology in the context of its applications can increase support for nanotechnology, while introducing it in the context of risk and benefits increases an individual’s likelihood of seeking out more information about nanotechnology in the future. For those who are merely interested in strategically increasing public support for nanotechnology, especially among people with lower levels of education or science training, the lesson is simple: emphasize the applications of nanotechnology over the risks and the benefits.

If we assume, however, that one of the normative goals of modern science is to promote interest and information seeking among various lay and policy audiences, another dimension of our findings is much more interesting. In particular, definitions of nanotechnology based on risks and benefits raise interest in more information (seeking) about nanotechnology among individuals with low levels of science education.

The way we define nanotechnology matters for advancing an informed and engaged citizenry for the issue of nanotechnology in at least two different ways. First, for researchers engaged in tapping public reactions to emerging technologies, our findings provide important insights into the importance of carefully developing background definitions provided to respondents in surveys, citizen forums, and other settings of social science research. Second, and more importantly, the definitions we as scientists develop and offer for public use will likely shape public perceptions and views in policy debates. As our data show, different groups among the lay public react very differently to specific types of definitions. It is reasonable to assume that reactions among policymakers are similarly dependent on prior knowledge, experience, and other factors. If we want to increase public interest in the technology in itself and in learning more about it—regardless of what the attitudinal outcome might be—we as scientists need to develop an in-depth empirical understanding of how the definitions we offer to public audiences about emerging technologies will further these goals. The current study is a first step in this direction.


Our analyses are based on an online survey using a probability-based online panel collected by Knowledge Networks designed to be nationally representative of the United States. Those contacted who did not consent to participate were terminated from the survey. All participants obtained qualification to win an in-kind prize through a monthly Knowledge Networks sweepstakes. In total, 1,736 people age 18 and older completed the survey between 9 and 23 July 2010, and data were weighted to be representative of the American population.

During the experiment, participants were asked to answer sets of pre-test questions, including issue familiarity toward nanotechnology. Following this, participants were randomly assigned to read one of three different definitions of nanotechnology, i.e., applications; risk/benefits; or comprehensive. After reading the definition, participants were asked questions measuring their attitudes on nanotechnology and likelihood of seeking information. Participants completed the study in approximately 28 min.


General support for nanotechnology, as other studies have measured (Lee and Scheufele 2006; Scheufele and Lewenstein 2005), was measured with an mean index of two items using 10-point scales (1 = “do not agree at all”; 10 = “agree very much”) that asked how much respondents agree with the following statements: “Overall, I support federal funding for nanotechnology” and “Overall, I support the use of nanotechnology” (M = 5.08, SD = 2.50, Pearson’s r = .81). Interest in more information was measured using a single item (1 = “do not agree at all”; 10 = “agree very much”) asking how much respondents agree with the following statement: “I would need more information about nanotechnology before I could make any decisions about it” (M = 6.77, SD = 2.89). Educational background in science was measured with 3 categories (1 = “yes, my college degree is a science-related field”; 2 = “no, my college degree is not a science-related field”; 3 = “I do not have a college degree”).



This material is based upon work supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (Grant No. SES-0937591) and the UW-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale (Grant No. SES-DMR-0832760). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Ethical standards

The Social & Behavioral Science Institutional Review Board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison approved the use of human subjects in this research. Informed consent was obtained from all participants. Those contacted who did not consent to participate were terminated from the survey.

Supplementary material

11051_2013_1421_MOESM1_ESM.docx (15 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 14 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ashley A. Anderson
    • 1
    • 4
  • Jiyoun Kim
    • 2
    • 4
  • Dietram A. Scheufele
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • Dominique Brossard
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • Michael A. Xenos
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Center for Climate Change CommunicationGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA
  2. 2.Department of Life Sciences CommunicationUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  3. 3.Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State UniversityGledaleUSA
  4. 4.Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the NanoscaleUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  5. 5.Department of Communication ArtsUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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