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Study: People place their trust in scientists over policy makers

Are people more likely to place their trust in scientific experts or government officials when advised to change habits or make better health decisions?

A new study found that in the US and UK, the public is more likely to believe and follow advice from scientific experts rather than government officials, and the results show that people are biased towards scientific findings even when being told something outlandish.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Queen Mary University of London and published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

The researchers asked US and UK residents to consider a set of nudges proposed by both policymakers and scientists in three large-scale experiments.

Nudges are interventions or changes that people can make to improve health and welfare and which are presented as short, attractive snippets.

For example, proposing to put catchy photos in stairwells to encourage people to take the stairs is a nudge.

Some of the nudges, like the stairwell example, presented to the participants were real and already being implemented whereas others were completely fictitious.

One example of an outlandish nudge was the suggestion that people stir their coffee counter-clockwise to avoid cancer risks.

The nudges that were presented by scientific experts were favored by the participants and those were considered more trustworthy, even if they were implausible like the coffee nudge.

“While people judged genuine nudges as more plausible than fictitious nudges, people trusted some fictitious nudges proposed by scientists as more plausible than genuine nudges proposed by the government,” said Norman Fenton, the study’s co-author. “For example, people were more likely to trust the health benefits of coffee stirring than exercise if the former was recommended by scientists and the latter by government.”

While one takeaway of the results could be that people will trust scientists no matter what information is actually presented, the researchers say that the study shows people are more discerning and prone to scrutiny than typically thought.

“The evidence suggests that trust in scientists is high, but that the public are skeptical about nudges in which they might be manipulated without them knowing,” said Magda Osman, the lead author of the study. “Overall, the public make pretty sensible judgments, and what this shows is that people will scrutinize the information they are provided by experts, so long as they are given a means to do it.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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