How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

The Risk of Getting Risk "Wrong" and the Psychology of Why We Do.

The Psychology of Risk and the Importance of Choice

In last week's first installment in this little series of hopefully regular Wednesday posts, I started describing risk perception factors, affective characteristics of potentially risky situations that make them feel more or less scary, the scientific facts and probabilities about that risk notwithstanding. Think of these factors as a risk's personality traits. The one we focused on last week was Pain and Suffering.
      The greater the pain and suffering the risk involves, the more frightening it's likely to be. Regardless of the odds. Heart disease is far more likely to kill us, but most people worry more about cancer, in large part because cancer is perceived as involving more pain and suffering. But when I mention this example to friends they say that another factor also makes heart disease feel less scary. Heart disease feels like it's something they can do something about. That's the risk perception factor for today. Choice.
      Simply put, if you choose to take a risk, it will probably feel less scary than if the very same risk is imposed on you by somebody else. Here's the Quiz for today's post. (I'll try to incorporate these fun little interactive elements throughout this series, as I do in "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts".) Imagine you're driving on a highway, and you're using your cell phone, and in the lane next to you the driver in the car nearest to you is on his cell phone, and he's weaving in and out of his lane, closer to you and further away, closer and away. And he's speeding up and slowing down. He's obviously distracted, and subjecting you to danger as a result! THAT guy makes you angry, right? The selfish b_stard, putting you at risk while he yaks away!
      But wait! You're doing the same thing, taking the same risk. In fact, statistically you're at four times greater risk of hurting yourself by DWP - Driving While Phoning - than being hurt by someone doing it in another vehicle. But risk perception is not about the odds. You're choosing to use your phone. You're taking the risk voluntarily. It's another thing altogether if somebody subjects you to danger involuntarily.
      There are other psychological factors involved in this example as well. You're getting a benefit out of your call, and the more a behavior produces a benefit, the more we mentally play down any associated risk. You are also in physical control of your vehicle, and physically controlling what's going on (as opposed to choosing whether to take the risk in the first place) also makes the danger seem smaller. And there's good old Optimism Bias, the tendency we have to tell ourselves "It won't happen to ME!" (Much more on Risk v. Benefit, and Control, and Optimism bias, in future posts.)
      But choice is a big risk perception factor in our fears about DWP. Do you think most people who want the government to ban cell phone use while driving are say "Ban MINE."? Of course not. You can do that yourself. Just don't use your phone while you drive. No, the demand we make on government to ban cells phones and driving is to protect us from the risk imposed on us by others.
      Consider the role of Choice in the dispute over Yucca Mountain out near Las Vegas, the site the government was considering for a high level nuclear waste dump. Initially several sites were under review. But in 1986 Congress, in a really dumb move, said research would only continue at the Yucca Mountain site. Tag, Nevada. YOU'RE IT! Essentially, the risk of high level radioactive waste disposal was imposed on Nevadans. And their opposition skyrocketed, culminating successfully just a few months ago when President Obama, making good on a promise that helped him win Nevada's four electoral college votes, scrapped Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump site.
      Or take some of my neighbors outside Boston, churchgoers who went ballistic when they learned that their pastor had agreed, without asking parishioners, to rent steeple space to a cell phone company for one of their towers. No matter the $3,000/month in rent the church would earn. Opponents cited fears for kids in the church day care center, fear for the elderly churchgoers. All kinds of fears. So the pastor withdrew the approval and opened up a process for input from parishioners, and son of a gun. Now that they could choose for themselves, the fears vanished and the parishioners approved the rental. What had changed? Choice. That's all.
      It's healthy for us to know how these risk perception factors work, because they can get us into trouble. They can create risks all by themselves. A driver who isn't worried about DWP, in part because they're choosing to do it, is in danger. And it's their affective risk perception as much as the phone use itself, that's creating the threat. Choice may make something feel less risky, but that doesn't mean it actually is. Getting risk wrong because of these risk perception factors, is risky all by itself. And those churchgoers initially opposed to the steeple rental not actually because of any danger (there is practically none from such towers) but because the risk was being imposed, would have lost out on a lot of money that could help their church, because of the lack of choice. That's not healthy decision making either.
      So, in the name of making healthy choices, remember that Choice is a risk perception factor that has a powerful influence on whether something feels more frightening, or less. And it might influence your judgment in ways that are not optimal for your health.

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(These posts are summaries from "How Risk Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Match the Facts". And I talk about these issues on Twitter pretty regularly too, if you'd like to be part of that conversation.

 

 

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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