Several years ago, a friend asked two of us if an over-the-counter drug that promised to increase one’s lifespan actually had evidence to support this claim. We couldn’t find any research on the drug and suggested that our friend refrain from using it since it hadn’t been tested for safety. Her response: “But it’s natural, so it can’t hurt you.”
We were dumbfounded by this statement. After all, substances like arsenic and botulinum toxins are natural — but they are also deadly poisons. After much discussion, we wondered if her belief was isolated or representative of a general belief. In other words, do people have a default belief that “natural” items are safer and better than non-natural or human-made items?
After years of research, we believe that the short answer is yes. In a new report in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, we review studies showing that people believe that a host of items including foods, medicines, beauty products, cigarettes, lighting, and even causes of injuries are better and/or safer when they are labeled as natural versus synthetic or human-made. Reviewing this research and other work over the past few years spurred us to examine behaviors and beliefs surrounding natural and synthetic drugs. Here are three key findings from several of our studies involving more than 2,000 participants:
- In hypothetical scenarios, people preferred drugs described as natural over those described as synthetic and rated them as safer too. In fact, some people retained their preference for drugs labeled as natural even when they were said to be less safe or less effective than synthetic ones.
- When we offered pedestrians a free over-the-counter pain reliever, and they could choose between one that was said to be natural or one that was said to be synthetic, more than 80% of those who made a choice picked the natural drug (note that although we asked them to make the choice, we did not give out actual pain relievers in the study).
- When we educated people about the inherent preference for natural items, the bias was reduced.
Research on the natural-is-better bias is important and has real implications. The term “natural” frequently appears in product names and descriptions, even though the Food and Drug Administration does not yet provide a formal definition for the term.
We believe this term is used so often because it conveys a sense of positivity and safety to consumers, even though it may or may not reflect the actual safety of the product. Drugs and other items described as natural might sometimes be safer or more effective than synthetic drugs or other items, but to assume this is true in every case is both an error and potentially hazardous to one’s health.
For example, taking a drug simply because it is labeled natural without examining its safety could prove unwise, such as if the drug can cause harmful side effects. In other cases, drugs or other items labeled natural may not have safety data to examine; that may also be an instance in which individuals should think twice about using them.
Rather than assume that anything labeled natural is better by default, it’s important to engage in thoughtful decision-making. That means carefully considering the risks and benefits of using items regardless of whether they are said to be natural or synthetic. Some natural items are good and some are bad, and the same holds true for synthetic items. It all depends on the item and the context.
The term natural is powerful and overcoming the bias toward it likely requires conscious effort, especially considering highly publicized controversies surrounding synthetic items like herbicides. Even after conducting this research, we find that natural items continue to capture our attention. When we shop, we are lured by products in the natural aisle, but then we think about our research and try to take the labels with a grain of salt. Usually that works — but sometimes we buy “natural.”
Brian P. Meier, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. Amanda Dillard, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. Courtney M. Lappas, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.