You are one of the authors of the recent study “The effect of communication and the implicit associations in the consumption of insects: an experiment in Italy and Denmark.” Can you sum up its content and goals?
In recent years researchers have been showing increasing interest regarding the hypohetical introduction of edible insects in the western diet. First of all the individual benefits linked to the excellent nutritional profile of the main species of edible insects are emphasized. Moreover there are also important “social” benefits, such as the reduction of gas emissions, water conservation, reuse of agricultural waste and food safety. Edible insects are a source of noble proteins with low environmental impact, also in terms of polluting wastes, energy demand and land use.
Despite these extremely important advantages, recent studies keep on showing a low propensity of Westerners to introduce edible insects in their usual diet. We therefore asked ourselves: it is possible to positively influence the intention to eat insect-based food by informing people about the individual and/or social benefits of this novel food?
What are the implicit associations in the field of eating behaviour? And in the particular case of eating insects?
In recent years, psycho-social research has focused increasingly on the mental processes that influence human behavior operating below the threshold of awareness. Strack and Deutsch, in particular, managed to distinguish within the human mind the reflective system, in which behaviors are the result of beliefs, thoughts and decisions, from the impulsive system, which contains a number of implicit associations, sedimented over time, connecting directly categories and concepts. The basic idea is quite simple: as soon as an environmental stimulus (such as an insect-based food) evokes a concept or category (in this case, “bugs”), without even thinking about it, a number of other concepts linked to the first (such as “disgusting,” “feces”, “decomposition”, and so on) “activate” in the mind of the individual. Research has shown that implicit associations have an important role in influencing the behaviour and choices of human beings. In addition, the use of implicit measures such as the Implicit Association Test, which was adopted in this study, in addition to traditional self-report measures, makes it possible to predict more accurately the behavior of people.
To what conclusions led your study?
First of all, the study highlighted that providing information about the benefits of eating insects enhances the propensity of people to do so. We also found out that the improvement of intention towards the food based on insects persists for at least two weeks after the end of the experiment. Moreover, the fact that the positive effects of information are not affected by gender, level of education, familiarity with the topic and are substantially identical in Italy and Denmark, although being two countries with different food cultures, makes this result is even more interesting.
We also discovered that implicit associations, as we expected, directly influence people’s behaviour (eating or not eating products made from bugs) without the mediation of deliberative cognitive processes. It is important to underline that although the role of affective and unaware processes has been often recalled by previous studies, our research provides the first empirical evidence on the issue.
What role does communication play when it comes to introduce a new food in a culinary traditionalist context like the Italian one?
The role of communication is crucial, since it combines the informative and the persuasive aspect. Besides informing people, it creates and edits the repertoire of symbols and images from which people draw for their universe of signification, as well as for conceptual implicit/automatic chains.
Going back to our main issue, what role must communication have in the process of acceptance of edible insects by Italians consumer and more generally by the European ones?
Our study is consistent with previous research in asserting that people’s familiarity with the issue is a very positive factor for the acceptance of insects as a food. Our research also highlights a significant difference between the Danes, who are more familiar with the topic, come from a more open-minded food culture and are generally better disposed towards food based on insects, and the Italians, more conservative and reluctant. Communication could be handled not only by companies, but also at institutional level, to ensure full and transparent information on the introduction of edible insects in the diet, thus increasing the levels of awareness and familiarity of all European consumers.
Do you believe that the fact of promoting insects consumption using insect images “as is” could create greater repulsion or rather help to “normalize” an unknown concept?
This is a very important point. At the current state of research, however, it is still not possible to give a certain answer. Nonetheless, our impression is that communication based on accurate information concerning individual and social benefits, supported by a mainly iconographic action that tends to represent the insect as food, thus modifying the symbolic imagery, might be the most balanced choice. It might have a positive impact also on “processed” foods, such as flour or insect-based supplements, which are currently the products that customers -according to international research– are more willing to accept.
Which is the best piece of advice –in terms of communication- you would give to companies that sell products made from edible insects in the Western market?
From our study seems to emerge that the positive effect deriving from a message built on “social” benefits of consuming food made of insects is more stable over time than a message built on individual benefits. Therefore, the first advice we would like to give is to use both argumentations in the construction of informational messages, possibly focusing on social topics, which could be placed at the beginning and at the end of the message (primacy and recency effect). On the other hand, as we already suggested, informational processes involving reasoning and individual awareness are neither the only ones nor probably the most influential factors determining the behavior of people facing the possibility of eating food that contains bugs. Consequently it is necessary to intervent even on implicit associations chains sedimented in people’s minds. For example, it could be crucial to modify, mainly through communication campaigns that use interactive and iconic tools, the association between the category “bugs” and concepts such as feces and decomposition, which according to several studies seems to be very tight in the Western imagination. On the contrary, it would be necessary to build or strengthen the association between the concepts of “bugs” and “food”, which does not look very solid. A particularly suitable environment to put into practice these strategies could be represented by schools, where one can intervene precociously on explicit and implicit attitudes of people. In this sense, research is just at the beginning, but it has a promising road ahead.
Download the whole Study (english version, pdf format): The effect of communication and implicit associations on consuming insects_An experiment in Denmark and Italy (thanks to Elsevier for the free-use of the document)