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.


Opinion – The Future of Agriculture Communications and Communicators

The need for those in the Agriculture Communications sector will be imperative in the future. With the convergence of technology and agriculture, someone needs to disseminate that information and convey it to farmers and the general public. Our role as Agriculture Communicators is part-scientist, part tech-guru, part dietician, and part-teacher and we impart that information to communicate it to our audience.

It wasn’t that long ago that the primary means to communicate advances in agriculture was in print or radio. Audiences for agriculture information were rural based or farmers, and they were looking for information and education on techniques to improve their agriculture practices. With the advent of technology, agriculture communicators have progressed from a mostly journalism-based craft to media production, web design, strategic communications, and social media. With the emergence of technology, agriculture communicators can reach a bigger audience. The problem with technology is that it has created an echo chamber of farmers and consumers, who sometimes don’t see eye to eye.

I created this blog with the aspiration of connecting agriculture and the urbanite, and I am not alone in this endeavor. As more generations of urbanites become less connected to where their food comes from, it has created what some term as a “green divide.” Being born and raised in Los Angeles and other urban areas throughout California, we have a romantic notion of the farmer’s market as a place to get a bouquet of flowers, a cup of coffee, and vegetables from small family farmers. Godfrey and Wood wrote, “Shoppers’ perceptions of agriculture are largely based on clouded childhood memories, second-hand information and the occasional horror story in the media” (2003). Consumer perception reported by the media include dangers with GMOs, the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gases, environmental degradation, and animal welfare issues.

Forty-four percent of consumers stated that their primary source of animal welfare concerns was from the Humane Society for the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and that information provided from the industry were the least sourced information.

Despite numerous studies from scientists and the EPA stating that agriculture in the United States contributes about 9 percent to greenhouse gases, articles and news stories report studies that call for a three-fold increase in the consumption of beans and pulses and a 75 percent reduction in the consumption of meat. Consumers are under the perception that feedlots are how beef is raised and that grass-fed is a superior product. Until I became involved in agriculture, I was one of those people. Despite efforts from the beef industry, the message is not getting across to the consumer.

If consumers are responding to HSUS and PETA, what is it about their organizations that their message is able to persuade them? Why is it that people who spread misinformation have more followers than the people involved in the industry?

The problem is a general mistrust of the scientific community. As Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey (2018) note, “shifts have enabled unscrupulous actors with ulterior motives increasingly to circulate fake news, misinformation, and disinformation with the help of trolls, bots, and respondent-driven algorithms.” Media outlets will have non-scientific people like Food Babe to explain the e. coli infection in romaine lettuce. People will stay within their echo chamber because they do not want to create any dissonance.

What can agriculture communicators learn from this, and how can they craft a persuasive message that conveys what the industry is doing today? There are so many studies, glossy reports, and great graphics that address some of these issues and it is up to agriculture communicators in the future to deliver it.

Agriculture communicators need to be proactive to consumers and technology can assist. In addition to blogs, social media channels, such as YouTube, and vlogs (video logs) could connect farmers with consumers. We need to work within our echo chamber to find a solution to bridge that divide between consumers and agriculture. This involves the cooperation of dieticians, scientists, teachers, farmers and ranchers to work on this cause using technology to create a common ground. It shouldn’t be an us versus them philosophy when it comes to organic versus conventional farming practices; agriculture communicators should use both viewpoints to convey the truths when it comes to farming and ranching. Technology can create a dialogue, and agriculture communicators can be the moderators of that discussion.



Cultivate Conference explores the future of technology and agriculture

Note: This article also appears on the Emerging Prairie website and a huge thank-you to them for giving me the opportunity to write an article for them. My first, as an agriculture communicator. 

Over 300 people attended the 2nd annual Cultivate Conference hosted by Emerging Prairie on November 15th, 2018. The conference was a convergence of technology and agriculture presented in TED-style talks from companies providing software programs and applications for farmers and ranchers to do their job better.

“One of the biggest challenges today is to evaluate the combination of various technologies to arrive at the answer to ‘What is Best?’”, was the critical concept presented by Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies.

To answer the question, the presenters highlighted products that addressed diverse problems such as, tractor safety, getting wireless and internet to the farm with a presentation from the infrastructure panel, outdated technology in the back office, tillage, renting and managing land, weather, the cost and availability of feed, and other applications bringing technology to make their job easier.

“I can get 24 tons of feed in two hours; I can’t get Domino’s.” joked Carl Lippert of Grass Ridge Farm, when talking about his app, Feed Manager, developed for his dairy farm in Wisconsin and available to farmers.

With the increase in world population, a continuing labor shortage, and the shifting demographics of farms getting larger, Brian Carroll, Director of the Center for Excellence at Emerging Prairie and his team, has a dream that farming will be autonomous by 2050. To do this, Carroll proposes an EPCOT (experimental prototype community of tomorrow) type center where technology comes together to interact in Fargo.

“We have all the parts in place, we have great companies, we have a university system, we have innovators, we have people building businesses, we have opportunities here that are really the key parts of the engine,” said Carroll. “What we need to do now as a community, is to put a focus on those together and turn that into a high performing engine.”

To do this, Carroll proposed a four-step process for that goal to come to fruition. The first step in the process is an ecosystem to identify opportunities for products to be built.  Second is to start thinking about an accelerator and fill it with businesses around the gaps. Then move into a makerspace, an area where people can come together from different organizations in order to work and collaborate, but also share technology. Lastly, as Carroll stresses, the need to target the education system to look for ways in which we build STEM, research, computer science, and machine learning.

“Our generation may be the last generation to drive a tractor,” said Ryan Raguse, Co-Founder and Chairman of Myriad Mobile, the parent company of Bushel and one of the event sponsors. “There are two types of futurists, indefinite and definite. We need to be the definite futurists and believe the future is going to happen – you get a say.”

The event concluded with the farmer’s panel consisting of Chris Johnson of C&S Farms, Sarah Lovas of Lovas Farms, and Zach Johnson of MN Millennial Farmer. The group discussed such issues as buying and marketing online, technology and the challenges from a generational standpoint, and products that could solve a current pain point. A few things that the panel discussed were, that it is essential to have the service to back-up the product, that it is excellent when it works, and there’s a difference between the analytics saying what’s best for the farm and the actual art form of farming. The panel found the conference very informative and expressed optimism with the current labor shortage, the goal of achieving an autonomous farm.

“There is a lot of great technologies that were presented. It’s very exciting to hear about all the creativity in agriculture,” said Lovas. “Creativity and imagination are a part of being a farmer, and it’s great when we can see that coming from the technology and software standpoint.”

Greg Tehven, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Emerging Prairie, regards the Cultivate Conference as a space for collaboration and exploration of possibilities where technology can create efficiencies for the farmer and hopes to build on its potential.

“Based on the national interest with folks coming in from around the country, as well as the number of farmers who drove from across the state to be here, there’s a tremendous amount of potential,” said Tehven. “We hope to keep building partnerships to bring great innovators from around the world to come to North Dakota to meet folks and see how they can connect together.”