Are People Skeptical Of Biomass Energy Because of Context?

Opinions people have about innovations are influenced by the context in which they form their opinion. For example, opinions about a novel energy source like biomass are influenced by thoughts regarding other energy sources.

The less knowledge, interest or time people have, the stronger this effect. Sustainable energy options must therefore be promoted in the right context says Dutch researcher Wouter van den Hoogen.

People frequently form opinions about new technologies, such as novel energy options, despite having a very limited knowledge of the subject concerned. The subject is often complex and people are either not particularly interested or have limited time.

Wouter van den Hoogen’s research indicates that the opinions people form about various energy sources are related to each other. The researcher argues that an integrated communication strategy should be used for the acceptance of each type of sustainable energy source introduced to the Dutch market. Promoting one specific energy source can adversely affect the acceptance of other new energy sources.

In seven experiments Van den Hoogen examined the boundary conditions within which so-called 'context effects' can occur. A context effect occurs if a person’s opinion about new technologies depends on subtle differences in the context in which the technology is introduced. The theme of these experiments was energy from biomass. It appeared that people were only sensitive for subtle differences in context if they had a weak basic attitude towards the subject. When people had a weak opinion, and another energy source was casually mentioned just before the assessment of biomass, then their opinion about the use of biomass was assimilated to the use of the other energy source.

Biomass was assessed more positively if sunlight was mentioned in this context, compared to when coal was mentioned. This is because people use the information in context, as an interpretation framework for assessing the unknown item. Still, this assimilation effect did not always occur in the experiments. Sometimes a comparison with the context led to a contrast effect: in this case, biomass was valued more highly if it was compared to coal and valued less if compared to solar energy. Although the assimilation effects also occurred when people were hindered from thinking, contrast effects required mental effort.

The doctoral research is part of the programme 'Biomass as a sustainable energy source: environmental load, cost-effectiveness and public acceptance' financed by the NWO/SenterNovem Stimulation programme Energy research. The aim of the programme is to develop knowledge in the natural sciences and humanities for the transition to sustainable energy supplies.

Source: Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research