What’s in a name? How we define nanotech shapes public reactions


Audiences are most likely to form their opinions about issues based on the aspects that are primed and easily available in their minds (Hastie and Park, Psychol Rev 93:258–268, 1986; Tversky and Kahneman, Cogn Psychol 5:207–232, 1973). In this study, we examine how priming people with various definitions of nanotechnology differently shapes public perceptions of and engagement with the technology. Using a randomized experimental design embedded in a representative survey of the U.S. population (n = 1,736), we find that defining nanotechnology in terms of novel applications increases public support for nanotechnology but does not motivate audiences to gather more information about it. In contrast, definitions highlighting the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology can increase likelihood of future information seeking.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Cobb MD (2005) Framing effects on public opinion about nanotechnology. Sci Commun 27:221–239. doi:10.1177/1075547005281473

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Folkes VS (1988) The availability heuristic and perceived risk. J Consum Res 15:13–23. doi:10.1086/209141

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Hastie R, Park B (1986) The relationship between memory and judgment depends on whether the task is memory-based or online. Psychol Rev 93:258–268. doi:10.1037//0033-295X.93.3.258

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kahan DM (2009) Nanotechnology and society: the evolution of risk perceptions. Nat Nanotech 4:705–706. doi:10.1038/nnano.2009.329

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Kahneman D, Tversky A (1979) Prospect theory: an analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47:263–292. doi:10.2307/1914185

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Kunreuther HC (2001) Protective decisions: fear or prudence. In: Hoch SJ, Kunreuther HC, Gunther RE (eds) Wharton on making decisions. Wiley, New York, pp 259–272

    Google Scholar 

  7. Lee CJ, Scheufele DA (2006) The influence of knowledge and deference toward scientific authority: a media effects model for public attitudes toward nanotechnology. Journalism Mass Commun Q 83:819–834. doi:10.1177/107769900608300406

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Peter D, Hart Associates (2006) Report findings based on a national survey of adults. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington

    Google Scholar 

  9. Peter D, Hart Associates (2007) Awareness of and attitudes toward nanotechnology and federal regulatory agencies. Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington

    Google Scholar 

  10. Peter D, Hart Associates (2009) Nanotechnology, synthetic biology, & public opinion: a report of findings, based on a national survey of adults. Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Washington

    Google Scholar 

  11. Scheufele DA, Lewenstein BV (2005) The public and nanotechnology: how citizens make sense of emerging technologies. J Nanopart Res 7:659–667. doi:10.1007/s11051-005-7526-2

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Schwarz N et al (1991) Ease of retrieval as information: another look at the availability heuristic. J Pers Soc Psychol 61:195–202. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.61.2.195

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Tversky A, Kahneman D (1973) Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cogn Psychol 5:207–232. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. NISE Network Content Map. Available at http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/tools_guides/nanoscale_science_informal_learning_experiences_nise_network_content_map. Accessed 18 Jan 2013

Download references


This material is based upon work supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (Grant No. SES-0937591) and the UW-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale (Grant No. SES-DMR-0832760). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Ethical standards

The Social & Behavioral Science Institutional Review Board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison approved the use of human subjects in this research. Informed consent was obtained from all participants. Those contacted who did not consent to participate were terminated from the survey.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ashley A. Anderson.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 14 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Anderson, A.A., Kim, J., Scheufele, D.A. et al. What’s in a name? How we define nanotech shapes public reactions. J Nanopart Res 15, 1421 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11051-013-1421-z

Download citation


  • Public opinion
  • Public engagement
  • Nanotechnology
  • Definition