When 'Scientists say' coffee is good for you one day and bad for you the next: Do generic attributions to ‘Scientists’ and ‘Experts’ amplify perceived conflict?

Matthew Haigh*, Hope Birch

*Corresponding author for this work

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News consumers are frequently exposed to seemingly conflicting claims about the risks or benefits of activities such as eating meat and drinking coffee, which can lead to confusion and backlash against expert advice. One factor that may artificially inflate perceived conflict is the tendency for news headlines to generically attribute such claims to ‘Scientists’, ‘Experts’ or ‘Researchers’. This can create the perception that scientific consensus frequently changes, with ‘experts’ saying one thing one day (e.g., “Fasting diet could regenerate pancreas and reverse diabetes, researchers say”) and another the next (“Fasting diets may raise risk of diabetes, researchers warn”). We predicted that hedging news headlines with the qualifier ‘some’ (e.g., ...some researchers say) would reduce perceived contradiction and backlash by triggering the scalar inference “some but not all…”. We presented participants with a series of conflicting headlines or non-conflicting headlines about health and nutrition. These were presented in either their original generic format (e.g., Researchers say...) or in a qualified format (e.g., Some researchers say…). Those that saw conflicting headlines felt they were more contradictory, more confusing and resulted in us knowing less about how to be healthy than those who saw the non-conflicting headlines (Experiment 1, N=294). In Experiment 2 (N=400), the same conflict manipulation had no effect on more general beliefs about nutrition or the development of science. When our conflict manipulation did affect beliefs (Experiment 1) the effect of conflict was not moderated by headline format. Our results suggest that replacing generic consensus claims (e.g., Researchers say...) with qualified consensus claims (e.g., Some researchers say…) does not reduce the perceived contradiction and confusion that are typically associated with conflicting news reports.
Original languageEnglish
Article number23447
Number of pages14
JournalCollabra: Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2021


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