HOW DO EMOTIONS impact our perception of food and purchasing decisions? When it comes to genetically modified (GM) products, that’s a question University of Guelph researchers can now answer with more clarity than ever before.
Emma Burger recently studied Canadian consumer emotions, information processing and purchase intentions for GM foods as a master’s of science student in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (FARE). Advised by associate professor Andreas Boecker and assistant professor Yu Na Lee, Burger’s project is unique and the first of its kind for FARE researchers.
“Both benefits and risks have been linked to GM foods so one would think that emotion plays a role in how consumers evaluate these products but there isn’t much in the literature about this,” says Boecker, who notes that there are studies about technology evaluation and how emotion impacts other consumer decisions such as medical treatments.
To obtain data specifically on the relationship between emotion and GM food acceptance, Burger conducted an online survey in July 2019. Affect, or an overall good or bad feeling towards an object, was measured in relation to purchase decisions for a hypothetical GM product – the “Always Green Avocado”. Similar to the real Arctic Apples products, the avocado features delayed browning.
“We are trained agricultural economists and emotions are not directly considered in any economic analysis, so this project was a brand-new area investigation for us,” says Boecker.
He says they used a standard approach to measure emotional responses – a scale based on five emotions for positive affect (interest, happiness, pride, excitement, and optimism) and four emotions for negative affect (fear, worry, anger, and pessimism).
“We analyzed the results and looked for distinct patterns of consumer segments that are different from a typical study that only indicates acceptors and rejectors,” he explains. “I’ve always thought that there is a large group of people who don’t fit into a black and white pattern and that is exactly what we found.”
Four consumer segments with distinct emotional responses to the product were identified in the study:
- Enthusiastic consumers have a strong positive and weak negative affect. They are younger and have the highest purchase intentions of all segments.
- Technology opposers have an inverse affect profile to enthusiastic consumers. They are older and tend to have a strong preference for non-GM foods.
- Conflicted consumers have a high degree of both positive and negative emotions. Similar to enthusiastic consumers, they are younger and have high purchase intentions but perceive GM foods as having greater risk. This segment has the highest share of members with university education.
- Indifferent non-consumers have a low degree of both positive and negative emotions. These consumers are older and have low purchasing intentions. They may be uninterested in the product.
“These results are no big surprise because the demographic characteristics make a lot of sense, but the conflicted consumers represent a very interesting segment,” says Boecker.
Next, the researchers studied how new information influences purchasing intentions and how this may differ between consumers.
Boecker says this study is unique because only statements about the benefits of GM were presented to participants, whereas many studies communicate both benefits and risks.
“Pointing out potential risks decreases acceptance or willingness to purchase and tends to override the positive impacts of communicating benefits that are salient to consumers,” writes Burger in a recent FARE newsletter. “We chose not to include information about potential risks and instead focused on statements about specific benefits and aspects of risk management that have not received much attention in research yet.”
Survey participants randomly received a positive statement about product parity, supply chain benefits, or time or data requirements for Health Canada risk assessment and approval.
Exposure to product parity information significantly increased the purchase likelihood of technology opposers and conflicted consumers. “It may seem trivial to point out that GM and conventional varieties are the same in taste and nutrition, but it is important to provide reassurance to consumers and take away some of their fear,” says Boecker.
Information on the data required for risk management in Canada positively influenced the conflicted consumers segment only.
“From a communications perspective, it is good to know that the conflicted consumers are influenced by information. It means that there are consumers looking for more information about GM products and this is linked to their emotional response,” he says.
The results of this research will be publicly accessible and could be utilized when introducing new GM products with direct consumer benefits to market.
Boecker says he plans to conduct follow-up studies that focus on consumer decision-making, what types of information consumers are looking for and how they are searching for it.
“I want to get a better understanding of how consumers perceive and evaluate modern breeding technologies and what information they are looking for and appreciating. This data could be revealed through research and used for future communications initiatives.”
Burger’s “Canadian Consumers’ Benefit and Risk Perception of Genetically Modified Food: The Role of Emotion, Information, and Risk Attitudes” thesis was funded by the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance. •