Disgust Sensitivity and Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy

Anne-Sophie Hacquin, Sacha Altay, Lene Aarøe, Hugo Mercier*

*Corresponding author for this work

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An increasing number of experts agree that nuclear power should be part of the solution to fight climate change as it emits little greenhouse gases, has had no negative health consequences during normal operation, and even limited consequences after accidents. However, in many countries the population is much more ambivalent about nuclear power, and tends to exaggerate the negative effects on health and the environment. We suggest that this gap between experts and the public stems in part from nuclear power triggering the behavioral immune system: a set of cognitive adaptations that aim at protecting us against pathogens by making us particularly alert to their existence, and attuned to their risks. In line with this suggestion, we find that (i) participants overestimate the risks of nuclear accidents compared to other types of disasters (Experiment 1), except for disasters that should also trigger the behavioral immune system (Experiment 2); (ii) participants were more interested in reading and sharing a news article about a nuclear accident than about other types of accidents (with the same exception, Experiment 2); (iii) participants were less willing to be in contact with an object that had been in a nuclear power plant than in a car manufacturing plant (Experiment 3); (iv) arguments showing that nuclear power plants should not elicit fears of contamination reduced the negative perception of nuclear energy (Experiment 4). This work suggests a cognitive basis for the popular rejection of nuclear power, and ways to bridge the gap between experts and the public on this topic.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101749
JournalJournal of Environmental Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022


  • Behavioral immune system
  • Disgust sensitivity
  • Fear of contamination
  • Nuclear energy
  • Public opinion
  • Radiation


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