A Matter of Trust — and Narrative

Why do some people feel such hostility toward scientists? Psychological scientists have identified a key reason — lack of trust. People put faith in others with whom they find commonality, says APS Past President Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University, and that’s something that scientists have tended to neglect.

Fiske was among several psychological scientists who participated in the Science of Science Communication colloquium, Sept. 23–25, at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, DC. Much of the discussion at the event focused on public beliefs and attitudes about science topics, not to mention the scholars who study them.

Fiske, who studies stereotypes and prejudice, briefed the audience of scientists and communications professionals on her psychological theory called the stereotype content model (SCM). That model puts stereotypes into four categories split into combinations of perceived warmth and competence.

Scientists, she said, are seen as competent, but cold. People who fit in that stereotype category, including rich people, professionals, Asians, and Jews, tend to engender suspicion and envy, she said. Her research further shows that many people suspect scientists of having an agenda, such as gaining more research money, hurting corporations, or showing superiority.

“People do believe we have the knowledge,” Fiske said. “That’s not the issue. Our intentions are not necessarily trusted.”

So how to build that trust? Fiske and other psychologists participating in the NAS forum said scientists need to use stories, not just statistics, to inform the public about their work. Narrative can generate more empathy for out-group communicators, according to psychological scientist Melanie Green of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Green cited studies in her lab that, while not focused on science communication, do show the benefits of communicating scientific findings through imagery and story-telling. In studying how people communicate information, Green and her colleagues found that when people use statistics, they’re perceived as competent, but when they use narrative, they’re seen as warm.

“So one thing that adding narrative to our science communication can do is up our standing on that warmth dimension,” she said.

The public gets tired of reading research results that contradict findings they had read about earlier, often not understanding that this represents the very essence of science. Experimental psychologist Bill Hallman, who chairs Rutgers University’s Department of Human Ecology, argued that communicating that uncertainty would actually generate more public trust than less.  APS Past President Doug Medin, who investigates the role of culture and moral values in the decision-making process, encouraged researchers to attend to the cultural side of science communication. He noted that findings will be perceived differently depending on the community or group involved in the research.

“Research use of terms like ‘the public’ can be distancing and homogenizing,” he said.

More information about the NAS colloquium, The Science of Science Communication II, can be found on NAS’s website.

References and Further Reading

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 878–902.

Green, M. C., Strange, J. J., & Brock, T. C. (Eds.) (2002). Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Medin, D. L., Unsworth, S. J., Hirschfeld, L. (2007).  Culture, categorization and reasoning. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology, 615–644.

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