When questions about the risks and benefits of new technology split society, objective discussion becomes difficult. A University of Basel researcher investigated this kind of polarization using the example of perception of the risk posed by 5G. The research suggests how divergent risk perceptions may arise and how excessive polarization can potentially be countered in the future.
The new cellular network standard 5G had already inflamed passions before the coronavirus pandemic: thousands expressed their disapproval of the new technology in public demonstrations and demanded a stop to network expansion. Strongly held opinions of risk can also spread rapidly through social media. The possible consequences? Hardening positions make understanding more difficult - a phenomenon that is also evident in the context of the coronavirus measures. But how do these divergent risk perceptions develop and how can we prevent this kind of polarization in order to enable objective debates about potential risks?
"Until now there has been no empirical data about how much 5G has actually polarized society and what the psychological causes of this are," says psychologist Dr. Renato Frey of the University of Basel. He has systematically investigated the differences in risk perception related to 5G, how they may have come about and what can trigger a change in risk perception. He has published his results in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Psychological Science.
Large majority sees high risk and low personal benefitThe representative study with almost 3,000 participants carried out in late 2019 shows that there are genuinely large differences in the risk assessment of 5G in Switzerland. Just under two thirds associate the technology with a moderate to high level of risk. And a large proportion of respondents saw only little or no personal benefit in the new cellular network technology. However, 61% judged the benefit to society and 76% judged the benefit to the economy to be high. A clear majority saw a need for more regulation (74%) and more research (90%), and if a referendum were held, 52% would have voted against 5G at this time.
Frey focused his analysis on the factors associated with differences in risk perception between different types of people. He took into account technology-specific factors, including subjective feelings of dread, trust in the public authorities that regulate 5G and individual knowledge about the technology. In addition, he researched person-specific factors, such as an individual’s openness to progress, the subjective feeling of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and sociodemographic factors such as age, gender and education.
In this psychological modelling analysis, the strongest correlation was with trust in public authorities: the lower this trust, the more likely a person is to classify the risk of 5G as high. Also significant is a subjective feeling of dread and the feeling of being exposed to 5G radiation and unable to avoid it, and a subjective feeling of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
How and why does risk perception change?In a second survey held in February 2020, Frey collected new data from the same study participants to investigate how stable their risk assessment of 5G had remained over time. In the interim, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) presented a comprehensive expert report with scientific facts about 5G, which Frey used as an opportunity for a field experiment. The study participants were randomly divided into four groups that either received informational material from the expert report (in some cases in the form of a multi-page summary, in others as a short version of a single page) by mail before the second survey or did not receive such material.
This field experiment showed that mere clarification of the empirical facts appears to have no direct effect on risk perception. But that doesn’t mean that opinions about 5G are set in stone, says Frey: "Knowledge about a technology is only one of the factors associated with risk perception. This ’intervention’ was also deliberately kept subtle. Future informational campaigns and risk communication about 5G in general could of course be made more pointed."
Although the expert report didn’t influence the average risk perception of the population, the perceptions of individual study participants did change - in both directions. In particular, changes in trust in public authorities played a role, as did changes in the degree of the perceived threat. "The results show that to counteract extreme polarization in risk assessment, these technology-specific factors may constitute an opportunity to start with," says Frey in summary.
The study wasn’t about characterizing a high risk perception as bad in principle, the psychologist emphasizes: "It was about understanding the mechanisms of how polarization of risk perception happens in the first place." He argues that a basic understanding of psychological mechanisms is helpful in promoting informed debates about the benefits and risks of new technology such as 5G.
A final report (in German) on the project is available on the FOEN’s website.
Psychological drivers of individual differences in risk perception: A systematic case study focusing on 5G
Psychological Science (2021), doi: 10.1177/0956797621998312