“Natural Is Better”: How the Appeal To Nature Fallacy Derails Public Health

As consumers, we are faced with a virtually endless range of “natural” products. We can start our mornings with a piece of toast slathered in all-natural smooth peanut butter and wash our clothes in naturally dirt-demolishing laundry detergent, while those of us with certain habits can enjoy a natural American Spirit cigarette when the craving hits.

Without a doubt, the “natural trend” is a dominant force across consumer industries, and particularly the food sector, where over 60 percent of all new products introduced in 2019 flaunted labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and “additive-free.” This natural cornucopia is not growing out of vacuum. Rather, it is catering to our ever-growing, and irrational, preference for the natural.

Researchers believe that our persistent pro-nature bias is rooted in the belief that natural things are simply better for us. This belief has little grounding in physical reality. Indeed, people strongly prefer to drink “natural” spring water to water that has been distilled and subsequently mineralized even after researchers tell them that the two drinks are certified to be chemically identical. Natural is simply better—what can you do?

Our preference for things deemed to be natural is so illogical and systematic that researchers have given it a name—the appeal to nature fallacy. The power of this cognitive bias is so great that the average person is willing to pay a premium on foods and medicines referred to as natural. This has certainly spawned its fair share of shrewd marketing tactics aimed at unsuspecting consumers.

In our current COVID-19 predicament, the appeal to nature fallacy has an even darker side:  it makes some people believe that they do not need vaccines. Why would they, if they can protect themselves the “natural way”?

In our current COVID-19 predicament, the appeal to nature fallacy has an even darker side:  it makes some people believe that they do not need vaccines.

At the end of 2020, our behavioral science think tank, BEworks, completed one of the largest North American surveys of the public’s attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccination to date, covering over 3,700 nationally representative Canadians. Like other surveys in this sphere, we found that up to a third of respondents are opposed to getting the vaccine. But what really shocked us was how often individuals endorsed the belief that vaccination is unnecessary because the body’s “natural defenses” would do a better job at protecting it from infections.

These data, which have been condensed into our recently published report, have given us valuable insights into the psychological barriers to vaccine uptake, and prompted us to ask questions about the greater societal threat posed by pro-nature thinking. As it turns out, the appeal to nature fallacy has been resurfacing throughout recent history at great cost to humanity. And dissecting this story, as well as the fallacy’s role in the near future, will be crucial for our progress far beyond ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our findings may not be entirely shocking when we consider the myriad ways in which the appeal to nature fallacy has played out over the course of the pandemic. We have seen influencers like supermodel Miranda Kerr touting the healing antiviral benefits of celery juice. In another example of underqualified promotion of the “natural,” health guru and author Sayer Ji has gone as far as to suggest that vaccines are part of a grand transhumanist agenda seeking to rip humanity away from its natural roots.

The false argument that vaccines are irrelevant (or actively harmful) because they are unnatural has even been voiced by individuals with considerable power to sway public policy—look no further than one Republican senator touting the unscientific idea that natural immunity is superior. That vaccines cannot compare to natural immunity is not a fringe idea, even though, in some cases, vaccines are actually more effective at producing immunity than is surviving a disease. In fact, the superiority of “natural” immunity is cited as one of the more common reasons why individuals hesitate to get a jab.

Public health authorities do not need to be told that this way of thinking is problematic. Unaided, our innate immunity was clearly not sufficient to prevent an estimated 50 million people from perishing in the Spanish influenza epidemic of the early twentieth century. And it is clearly not preventing COVID-19 from continuing to take lives. So why does the appeal to nature fallacy have such a broad and persistent psychological pull?

Research tells us that we tend to see “natural” as a cue for “safe.” This invokes an automatic sense of security and trust that is not a given when we purchase foods, cosmetics products, or drugs with complex lists of obscure ingredients. Thus, the “natural” label—a potent proxy for the sensation of not having to worry—turns into the very object of our pursuits. For instance, people tend to rate “natural”-branded cigarettes as significantly safer than “regular” ones, despite there being no actual differences between them.

The “natural” label—a potent proxy for the sensation of not having to worry—turns into the very object of our pursuits.

Such misguided judgements can even influence our choice of medical treatment. In one psychological experiment where participants were given a choice between treating a hypothetical illness using a drug labelled as “natural” versus “synthetic,” 70 percent selected the natural option even when they were informed that both drugs were equally safe and effective. An astonishing 20 percent of individuals opted for the natural drug even when it was reported to be less safe than the synthetic version. These are, simply put, nothing more than illusory feelings of “natural” safety and “artificial” threat (in truth, naturalness is no guarantee for safety, as plenty of natural substances, like cyanide in apple pips and bitter almonds, can and do poison people on occasion). And the illusion is only made worse by people struggling to accept that natural and synthetic items can be chemically identical.

We haven’t always been so enamored by what we’ve perceived as natural. The past 300 years bear witness to an abundance of both odd and consequential medical procedures whose acceptance did not appear to hinge on naturalness—from paraffin-injection rhinoplasties and tincture of lead treatments for cancer to the revolutionary introduction of diethyl ether anesthesia in the mid-1800s. This paradox has led some to argue that our love of natural is a recent symptom of a widespread yearning to reject the modern world of pollution and epidemic outbreaks associated with our relentless industrial activities. In a sense, choosing the “natural” way to health is an implicit rejection of the “unnatural” state of affairs that pushes so many of us to the brink of illness in the first place. In this light, opposition to vaccines might just be one of the more recent and acutely relevant manifestations of a relatively novel rejection of human, and frequently Western, artifice.

In considering the cultural and historical factors that incline us toward the natural, there are reasons to suspect that these might in part be reflections of a universal, and perhaps timeless, way of thinking. For instance, one study found that our judgements of naturalness are particularly sensitive to transformations that involve addition, rather than subtraction, of components. Thus, orange juice with added pulp is less natural than orange juice with pulp removed, and a crop with an artificially inserted gene is less natural than one whose gene has been removed. This odd anti-additive bias might reflect instinctive concerns about contamination, although the ubiquity and historical roots of this bias are yet to be scientifically explored.

Questions about the origins of the appeal to nature fallacy aside, there are reasons to worry about the havoc it might wreak on our ability to progress as a society. Its tendency to seed vaccine skepticism has already generated trouble, such as the 2012 whooping cough outbreak in Washington state, where cases surfaced in numbers unseen since 1942.

Importantly, there’s every reason to think the appeal to nature fallacy will continue to sow doubt in practices that are good for public health. It has infiltrated public discourse at the highest levels of authority, which only serves to perpetuate the myth of naturalness’s superiority. We need look no further than the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act—a piece of legislation that subjects dietary supplements to lowered safety and production standards than conventional medicines. The assumption implicit in the Act is that natural products must be safer and thus require less stringent regulations. And Canada has similarly enshrined the appeal to nature fallacy in the form of the Natural Health Products Regulations, which shield items such as herbal remedies, homeopathy, and traditional medicines from the scrutiny that we subject to other treatments.

The notion that unnatural treatments are inherently more dangerous and worthy of scrutiny becomes a social norm promoted by authorities.

While these regulations are frequently under review, in the meantime they create a serious problem from a psychological standpoint. The notion that unnatural treatments are inherently more dangerous and worthy of scrutiny becomes a social norm promoted by authorities—something that gives the fallacy enormous power to shape people’s perceptions and decisions.

As applied behavioral scientists, we implore public health authorities to be more aware of the psychology of citizen decision-making as they seek to convince the public of the benefits of vaccination. The corrosive effects of the appeal to nature fallacy might be overcome with informational tactics tried and tested by behavioral researchers, such as the simple accuracy-judgement task recently found to be effective at “immunizing” individuals against sharing misinformation on their social media.

But fighting the fallacy is not our only way to deal with it. Instead, we might benefit from embracing the bias and reframing vaccines in a way that makes sense to our pro-nature mindset.

Vaccines can be viewed from many angles. On the one hand, they are an incredible feat of scientific research. But their effectiveness ultimately lies in their ability to trigger the body’s natural defenses using inoculated forms of pathogens that create lasting immunological memories of threat. Plenty of natural compounds work by triggering biological defenses in this way. For instance, resveratrol—a substance which lends grapes and wine their cardioprotective benefits—is now known to work by eliciting a natural stress response inside our cells which increases their long-term resilience (a mechanism known as “hormesis”). Appreciating vaccines from a similar angle—perhaps with messaging like, “stimulate your natural immune response with the vaccine”—might be one of the keys to overcoming public fears that the jab is an “unnatural” and inferior solution to the pandemic.

Whichever strategies we choose to undertake, we need to make sure that they are rooted in research and evidence. How we handle the 2021 crisis will have enormous implications for the future. This is because vaccination is not the only form of human progress at risk of being derailed by the appeal to nature fallacy.

Our preference for naturalness is already holding us back from a range of other behaviors with population-level benefits. One of these is the adoption of lab-grown meat, which, given its dramatically lower carbon footprint compared to industrial farming methods, may be one of our best solutions to the combined dilemmas of climate change and growing global meat demand. While many agree that cultured meat can be a crucial step toward sustainability in the developed world, people’s reported willingness to consume it has been documented to be as low as 11 percent. Concerns about the meat’s naturalness are frequently cited as the top barrier to accepting lab-grown as an alternative to farm-grown. And—in yet another remarkable display of the appeal to nature fallacy in action—people claim that they would find the increased risk of colon cancer associated with eating red meat to be much less acceptable when eating lab-grown versus “natural.”

The appeal to nature fallacy is a force we have to reckon with as we seek to vaccinate the globe and make wider progress on issues of sustainability and public health. This feature of our minds—still an unclear mishmash of recent sociocultural history and potentially innate cognitive patterns—needs to be understood and navigated to reduce the risks of large-scale pushback against positive societal change based on the sole premise of artifice. Figuring out whether navigating this means confronting and uprooting the fallacy with behavioral interventions or taking advantage of it to achieve results should be our next big step, and a cue for behavioral scientists to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Correction March 8, 2021: An initial version of the article referred to the naturalistic fallacy rather than the appeal to nature fallacy. While the two are related, the appeal to nature fallacy represents the argument more precisely.