Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude: How the Social Judgement Theory will help with communicating about agriculture

No, this isn’t a column about the Jimmy Buffett song. I usually write about Informing urbanites about agriculture, but in my last post I asked the question, “What can agriculture communicators learn from this, and how can they craft a persuasive message that conveys what the industry is doing today?” “This” in the question is people will stay within their echo chamber because they do not want to create any dissonance.

Part of the problem of creating dissonance can be attributed to people’s attitudes and beliefs and their anchor point, or original position, on an issue. How we can change or move a person’s anchor position was first studied in 1961 by Muzafer Sherif and Carl Hovland, and developed the Social Judgement Theory (I know what a terrible name).

You may be thinking, “great, some hotshot guy who is in college is going to preach to us about things they learned in class. Why doesn’t he blog about informing urbanites?” I will not preach, but I will suggest this theory will assist when it comes to talking about agriculture and the issues you hear every day.

The Social Judgement Theory states that people hold an anchor point or their preferred position on an issue. When the public is presented with a message, they have different latitudes by which they judge the message depending on how important the topic is to them or ego-involvement. They can be three different categories of latitude: acceptance, rejection, and non-commitment. The higher the level of ego-involvement, the importance an issue is to our self-identity, the smaller the latitude of acceptance. Social Judgment theory also discusses two different perceptual processes, called assimilation and contrast. These two effects occur when a message is very close to the listener’s own attitude (assimilation) or disagrees (is highly discrepant) with the audience (contrast). The most effective alignment occurs when a message falls within a healthy range of our latitudes, i.e., not too close and not too far from our anchor position.

Let me use an example to explain how this theory works. Six months ago, Bill Nye participated in a video produced by Now This about GMOs. His original, or anchor, position was that GMOs were wrong because he “believed that you couldn’t predict the effect of a novel species, a new type of corn for example, on the ecosystem.” His position was changed after talking with Robb Fraley, a ninth-generation farmer from Iowa, and someone from the Department of Agriculture who showed him the benefits of GMO crops. While some will dispute the credibility of Bill Nye, having him present the message lowers the level of ego-involvement and people are apt to move along the lines of latitude. The problem with the video is he mentions that Fraley is working for “the great evil” (which is in bold and bigger font) Monsanto. While people know that GMOs were initially marketed by them, Nye mentioning the name and the phrasing makes the message discrepant and heightens their ego-involvement. To couple with this, Nye also discusses that GMOs “don’t necessarily save money on pesticides.” While this is untrue, the mention of pesticides and this statement reaffirms any preconceived notion the public may have about GMOs. This was demonstrated by the comments on the video about Monsanto and the perceived evils of the corporation and the use of pesticides. Comments such as, “GMOs are raised for the purpose of chemical companies making money on poisons such as glyphosphates [sic].” These statements raised reactants as the mention of Monsanto and pesticides are issues that people have strong beliefs and attitudes about.

A better message would not only omit to mention Monsanto but would expand on the concept of hybridization and the correlation between GMOs and plant breeding. It would talk about all the products that people use every day that come from these crops and how it is possible with GMOs. In other words, it takes moving the bubble a little to get to the position you are trying to convey and to repeat the message. I foresee the same situation is going to happen with CRISPR technology. Despite the call for consumer education, there is already the correlation between it and GMOs. Yes, this has been tried before, but it requires reinforcing a unified message from those in the industry, trade groups and bloggers related to agriculture. The theory also states that if the message is beyond the latitude of acceptance, it requires repeated exposure. An example is the latest campaign from PETA calling for a change in expressions using animal words. It was talked about on talk shows and on social media both good and bad, but the message received exposure and may move some people’s latitude to what they were trying to accomplish. How many times have we seen or heard that one annoying commercial for a business and yet can sing the jingle or recite their tagline? With the Social Judgement theory, some of the messages that fall in other parts of the latitude of rejection might be persuasive if the messages are strong. We just need to craft information within these guidelines to change the attitudes and beliefs of how consumers feel about issues in agriculture.


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