The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why People Fear Harmless Chemicals

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Vani Hari, known as the "Food Babe", stands for a photograph at the Green Festival in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.
Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week’s “On the Media” has an interesting segment about Vani Hari, a.k.a. the “Food Babe,” the popular food blogger and decrier of chemicals who is basically wrong about everything. To get a better sense of how the Food Babe operates, OTM co-host Bob Garfield interviewed Michelle Francl, a Bryn Mawr chemistry professor and blogger who recently penned an anti-Hari article for Slate.

One exchange about halfway through the segment, in which Garfield asks Francl what accounts for the Food Babe’s popularity, highlights a really interesting psychological quirk that can help explain why people fall for her nonsense:

Garfield: The other thing is, these chemicals just sound scary. There’s a term for this: processing fluency?

Francl: Right. We trust material that is familiar, words that we can pronounce. Lots of chemical terms come from the Greek, so they have a lot of harsh-sounding vowels and consonant mixed in them — oxydane, methotrexate — they sound scary. But something like “four-marvels powder” sounds very safe — you know what a powder is, you know what ‘four’ is. ‘Marvels,’ that sounds like something that might be good for you. It’s actually a medicine, but it doesn’t sound like a medicine, right? It sounds safe and friendly. That’s processing fluency.

Francl chose this example because four-marvels powder, often sold as a form of “traditional” Chinese medicine, includes compounds that can cause liver damage. So can methotrexate, a cancer drug, for that matter — but it’s more likely to be prescribed by a doctor in carefully monitored doses. As Francl explained, some people use four-marvels powder simply because it sounds more benign than “traditional” medicine, and as a result may take potentially unsafe doses without understanding the potential side effects.

This bias toward familiar-sounding stuff doesn’t apply only to chemicals — other research has shown that all else being equal, humans have a broad tendency to favor the familiar over the unfamiliar. This is just one form of that, but a particularly potent form because 1) the general public knows so little about chemistry, and 2) questions about what’s in our food and what it could be doing to us tends to trigger our more hysterical impulses. The Food Babe plays off all of this masterfully and has earned herself a rapt, credulous following as a result.