This study and findings are discussed in detail in: Beauchamp, A.L., Roberts, S. J., & Piper, C. (2022). Changing Attitudes toward Scientists by Reducing Intergroup Biases: how a signage intervention focused on decategorization and recategorization improved trust. Journal of Science Communication, 21(06): A03.
- We studied zoo visitors to understand how messages shared at exhibits and through a live personality matching game can affect trust in science.
- Signs showing scientists as similar to the public had a significant positive influence on trust in science. Signs showing how people use science in their daily lives did not have an impact on trust in science, however, they increased willingness to cooperate with scientists among science skeptics.
- The personality quiz that used Buzz-feed style questions to match people with a WCS scientist had a positive effect on attitudes towards scientists. There were no effects when the quiz matched participants with a science career.
While positive perceptions of science have increased slightly over time, there remains a high level of public ambivalence toward science and even substantial polarization around certain science topics. Common expressions of distrust and concern over the integrity of science requires science communicators to identify effective ways to engage certain groups. Informal science institutions, including zoos and aquariums, work to make science accessible to diverse audiences and thereby can play a key role in bridging the disconnect between the public and the science community.
This project drew on research in social psychology about how personal identities and intergroup relationships shape our perceptions of science, applying it to investigate how zoos can use these factors to increase trust in science. This research tested two communication strategies common at zoos – exhibit signs and live interpretation – to understand how we can leverage the zoo context to increase personal connections to science.
Can personalizing scientists increase public trust in science?
Sign Study: We created three sign conditions at the snow leopard exhibit at Central Park Zoo. The ‘Scientist Traits’ signs emphasized shared traits between scientists and the public by showing scientists outside their profession and promoting perspective-taking with a scientist’s goals. The ‘Everyday Science’ signs focused on how the public uses science all the time to normalize science. The control condition included no additional signage. We surveyed adult visitors before and after their exhibit experience, measuring constructs including trust in science and perceptions of scientists.
Live Interpretation Study: We created a Buzz-feed style personality matching game that posed questions about participants’ likes and preferences. Their answers “matched” them with a real WCS scientist or science career, an indirect intergroup contact strategy. A facilitator led adult visitors through the activity, surveying them before and after the game to measure trust in science and related constructs.
- The public readily applied stereotypes that scientists are low in warmth and high in competence. These stereotypes can be overcome in some circumstances with messaging that highlights aspects of their identity and intergroup relationships.
- The ‘Scientist Traits’ signs, which showed how scientists are just like everyone else, had a significant positive impact on visitors’ trust in science and perceptions of scientists. In contrast, the ‘Everyday Science’ signage, which showed how non-scientists use science in their everyday lives, did not impact trust of science or scientists. It did, however, have a significant positive impact on willingness to cooperate with scientists among participants who perceived science as highly threatening.
- The personality quiz that used Buzz-feed style questions to match people with an individual WCS scientist had a positive effect on attitudes towards scientists. There were no effects when the quiz matched participants with a science career.
- Strategies that reduce intergroup differences and prompt indirect intergroup contact can be an effective mechanism for improving perceptions of scientists. Specifically, strategies that personalize scientists by highlighting individuals increase positive attitudes towards scientists as a group.