The psychology of naturalness preference
Recently, at a birthday party, I spoke to someone who was very concerned about all the problems that our modern era brings. He saw overpopulation as one of the biggest problems. When I said that developments in food technology could provide a good solution for the growing world population, he said with an expression of disgust: “Food technology! The word alone disgusts me! No, my vision is that the world population must be drastically reduced and that we must restore our connection with nature.” I was reminded of this conversation when I came across an article about the naturalness preference (Zhang & Yu, 2023).
What is the naturalness preference ?
In the article, the authors explain the concept of 'naturalness preference'. This psychological phenomenon describes people's tendency to prefer natural environments, objects, and innate talents over artificial or man-made alternatives. This preference is present even when the natural is objectively no better, or even worse, than the non-natural.
Manifestations of naturalness preference
The authors introduce a three-fold conceptual model of natural preference, focusing on the preference for natural environments, natural objects and innate talents.
- Natural environments: Humans have a deep-seated preference for natural environments, as supported by the Biophilia Hypothesis and Savanna Hypothesis . This preference is based on beauty and health benefits.
- Natural products: There is a strong tendency to view natural products, such as food and medicine, as superior, even in cases where objectively the non-natural varieties are better in terms of health and shelf life, such as is the case with genetically improved varieties of cassava.
- Innate talents: Natural talents and skills are often valued more highly than acquired skills, with a preference for the 'natural' over the 'acquired'. (I'll say more about this in the concluding paragraph).
Causes of naturalness preference
The authors distinguish as causes of the naturalness preference:
- Cognitive factors ( psychological essentialism ) : People believe that natural properties have an unchanging essence, leading to a preference for naturalness.
- Emotional responses: Natural environments and products evoke positive emotions, while unnatural efforts are often accompanied by negative emotions.
- Normative considerations (sacred moral values) : Natural things are seen as more authentic and morally higher, while unnatural alternatives often evoke disgust and moral outrage.
Future research and implications
The article highlights the need for further research into the negative consequences of naturalness bias, such as the 'natural fallacies' and anti-scientific beliefs. The impact of this preference on the acceptance of new technologies, such as AI and genetic modification, is also discussed. The authors call for a better understanding of how this preference can influence technological progress and argue for a balance between nature and technology.
Our deeply ingrained preference for naturalness poses some problems in our perceptions and decision-making.
First, this preference leads to the " appeal to nature " reasoning error, in which the natural state of something is wrongly cited as evidence of its superiority. This can lead to misplaced valuations and unfounded rejections of non-natural elements. The problem with the naturalness preference lies in its simplification of complex issues into a dichotomy of natural versus unnatural, whereby natural is wrongly regarded as intrinsically better.
Second, this preference manifests itself in two specific problematic ways:
- Overvaluation of naturalness: naturalness is often unfoundedly glorified, which can result in a preference for natural products or methods without an objective basis.
- Over-attribution of success to natural factors: There is a tendency to attribute excellence or success to natural talents or traits, undermining the value of effort and development.