When Psychology was first being developed, there was an assumption that humans were inherently rational and, given complete and accurate information, would act in their own rational self-interest. With time and experience, this perception has withered away. Humans make either logical or instinctive decisions depending on circumstance. While the extent to which risk perception stems from logic versus instinct varies from person-to-person, for the public as a whole, instinct and emotion generally hold sway.
Consider some of our common fears of unlikely events. Many people are terrified to fly, despite the fact that driving to the airport is far more dangerous than the flight itself. However, if you find a nervous flyer and tell him/her that each year an average of only 48 people in the U.S. are killed in plane crashes while over 30,000 die on our roads and highways, it’s not likely to provide any solace. People love cows and are terrified of sharks, yet sharks kill an average of 1 person per year in the U.S. while our bovine friends trample to death an average of 30. The list of similarly misperceived risks is quite long.
The root causes of our inability to accurately assess risk are twofold. First, from an evolutionary standpoint, when we are confronted with a potential risk, our brain’s emotional core, the amygdala, responds more quickly than the thinking part, the neocortex. This response mechanism developed in early humans, and while it is very useful if someone is throwing a spear at you, it comes in less handy when trying to assess the risk of smoking or a diet filled with bacon cheeseburgers.
Secondly, personal experience can have a strong impact on how we assess risk. I have an illogically strong fear of dogs. The origin of this fear is not hard to determine. When I was young, my uncle had a large German Shepherd. Whenever we would visit, the dog would run up quickly, bark in a loud and menacing way, and then clamp its mouth over my wrist. I found this situation utterly terrifying and would beg my uncle to make the dog stop. His response was to laugh it off and suggest that I adjust my emotional response to the dog by telling me that it meant no harm, rather than rendering the assistance for which I was so ardently begging. So to this day, being approached by an unfamiliar dog causes my amygdala to fire on all cylinders.
Our personal misperceptions of risk become enshrined in public policy when we vote for public officials who reinforce our fears, rather than those who provide us with the data behind issues. For example, one of my earliest columns reviewed the political circus surrounding the transport of napalm across the Midwest by train to a disposal facility in Texas. The word “napalm” scared people, so, predictably, politicians around the country rose up to stop the train. I could not find a single public official who tried to calm public fears by letting them know that napalm was significantly less dangerous than the gasoline that trundled through their neighborhoods by truck each day.
If we are going to face the challenges of this century we need to find a way to let our neocortexes have more influence in our voting decisions. We need a government that solves our problems rather than one that reinforces our fears. Perhaps we should elect more engineers?
[On a side note, some of you may be aware that about two months ago I started doing a radio spot on the 97.9 FM WCHL Afternoon News with Aaron Keck, Mondays at 4:40. Tune in this Monday, November the 12th, as I quiz Aaron on his ability to assess risks.]
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Many of my columns have contained critiques of public policy decisions made by our leaders in the areas of energy production, agriculture, and environmental protection. The decisions made by our leaders, as driven by public concern, often do not reflect a data-driven analysis of risks and benefits, but rather the instincts and emotions of the electorate. Consider food safety. Poor food preparation hygiene is resulting in wave after wave of significant illness from bacterial contamination, while consumption of genetically modified corn has not been shown to have any ill health effects, nor is it likely to. Yet while people will take to the streets to protest “Frankenfood,” no one marches on Washington to demand that the USDA hire more inspectors to look for E-coli on our lettuce. This dichotomy stems from our general inability as humans to assess risk.