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Critical thinking is:
  1. Skeptical clarification
  2. Logical thinking
  3. Humble self-reflection

It is still very common to hear offhanded negative remarks about GMOs from friends or acquaintances. As more gene-edited products hit the market, friends and clients may soon find themselves at dinner parties where someone starts raising concerns about much newer technologies as well. Initial concerns can escalate in social groups, especially if a few group members develop strong opinions, informed or otherwise.

Pushing back in such situations can be difficult or awkward. People tend to prioritize agreement and conversational flow over accuracy. This is normal and appropriate – no one likes a dinner guest who quibbles over every detail in a conversation. At the same time, these friendly conversational habits can allow dangerous and false ideas to perpetuate unchecked through social networks. Cass Sunstein, author of Unleashed and co-author of Nudge, calls this process a “norm cascade,” and he illustrates it with the example of GMO’s:

“If A is unsure whether genetic modification of food is a serious problem, he may be moved in the direction of alarm if B seems to think that alarm is justified. If A and B believe that alarm is justified, C may end up thinking so too, especially if she lacks independent information to the contrary. If A, B, and C believe that genetic modification of food is a serious problem, D will have to have a good deal of confidence to reject their shared conclusion.”

Can such norm cascades be prevented? Can we coach friends and clients to gently push back at the right time? Annie Duke, author, and former professional poker player, suggests a nice, simple tactic. Simply, ask an alarmist (or anyone), “How sure are you?” Duke explains the idea in a March 18th tweet:

“Instead of asking, ‘Are you sure?’ Try asking, ‘How sure are you?’

‘Are you sure’ is a yes or no question. It demands unreasonable certainty.

‘How sure are you?’ allows for shades of gray. It says uncertainty is okay.

How often in a day do you casually ask, ‘You sure?’”

This change in semantics can help nudge people towards reevaluating the sources of their opinions on their own. It’s a nice option, when you’re looking for a gentle way to pushback.

In collaboration with Today’s Dietitian, we asked almost 900 registered dietitians several questions about the critical thinking failures that they see most among consumers. In analyzing the results, we saw a key idea that needs way more emphasis:

“… we can’t start a dialogue about nutrition with the expectation of critical thinking. Instead, we must expect failures and develop communication skills to inform people who aren’t inherently prepared to think critically about nutrition.”

In the newly released article, we show that this idea is not as “mainstream” in the nutrition communication world as we think it should be. Communication can look quite different when we expect critical thinking failure. In the article, we discuss some important communication tactics that can help nutrition professionals engage real consumers - both in the clinic and in the media.

It’s hard to get someone to go against their emotions.

Picture a first-time parachutist, about to step out of the plane. Their body and their emotions are giving lots of “don’t jump” signals, but they do it anyway. The fear doesn’t just go away, and then they jump. They remain terrified, and then they jump anyway. They make the tradeoff. “This doesn’t feel right, but I’ll do it anyway”.

Food avoidance decisions can work in a similar way. For a variety of reasons (culture, social media, habit, peer influence, etc.) people come to fear, distrust, or just avoid certain foods. With emotional respect, you may be able to help them try those foods again, even if it doesn’t “feel right” for them.

In this short editorial, pediatrician Edith Bracho-Sanchez, describes how she uses this approach for another fear-based avoidance problem: vaccine hesitation.

She describes her experience with two families whom she eventually convinced to make the tradeoff, that is, get their kids vaccinated, even if it didn’t feel quite right to them. Her approach, in short, was to treat them with emotional respect. It was a gradual process. And they “agreed to disagree, at first”.

Here are two details of her emotional respect approach:

First, she listens, so she can understand the emotion (the fear) and figure out how to start to, respectfully, address it:

I'm always sincere. I shut my mouth and listen, and it is only when I've understood the root of a parent's concern that I start talking.

Next, she “normalizes” the source of the fear, and makes it seem more familiar, comfortable, and, well, normal:

One of the families was skeptical of anything that they didn't perceive as natural going into their baby's body, so I focused my efforts on explaining how the components of vaccines are safe. Yes, they are chemicals, but they have never been proved to be harmful, I said. Our bodies, our food, our world is made up of chemicals.

So she diminished their fear, somewhat. But, she also gave her patients the comfort to vaccinate “despite the fear”, because they trusted her, they felt respected, and it started to seem normal.

The same approach should work for helping people stop avoiding certain foods: Reduce fear by normalizing unfamiliar food processes. And if you’ve earned trust, people may make a leap of faith despite some lingering doubt or fear.

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