Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Psychology Of Risk Perception. Are We Doomed Because We Get Risk Wrong?

Part One. The BAD News.

1. Thinking about the next ten years, do you think your health will be better than average, average, or worse than average?

2. Which of the following statements feels worse;

A. "The number of Soviet citizens put to death by Joseph Stalin is estimated to be as high as five million."

B. "Petr Kolyakov was 15 years old when Joseph Stalin personally ordered the boy executed for failing to salute as Stalin's motorcade drove past him during a parade in Moscow."

3. More and more people around the world are dying from bacteria that have developed the ability to fight off our entire arsenal of antibiotics. How worried are you, personally, that one of these ‘super bugs" will kill you?

On their face, those questions would seem to have little to do with the biggest threat our species has ever faced; how can a population of 6 billion, due to grow by 50% to 9 billion in the next 40 years, with the poorer two thirds hungry for the consumptive lifestyles already enjoyed by the richer third, avoid catastrophic damage to the finite biological systems on which life as we know it depends? But it turns out that those questions illustrate perhaps the biggest problem we face in dealing with the dangers of living unsustainably. As a species we're not very good at dealing with these sorts of risks.

Our affective risk response system, a mix of instinct and intellect, reason and gut reaction, has evolved to deal with simpler dangers...hunger and wolves and bad guys with clubs. It's great for simpler, immediate risks, but it's not the sharpest knife in the drawer at cutting through more complex, longer range threats. That's the bad news. (The good news is, our intellectual abilities have at least given us the power to understand the psychology of risk perception, and that gives us a chance to overcome its limitations. More on that in Part Two of this post.)
Let's use climate change as an example of how too many of us, taking too much from and putting too much waste back into the biological system our health depends on, are fouling our nest. Ask people about their future health, or the likely longevity of their marriages, or their expected career earnings...anything, really...and most people will predict brighter futures than average. We are overly optimistic about things when they are far enough in the future that we can't see the details. Optimism Bias, the academics call it. Though climate change is apparently already underway, the harms we hear about lie beyond the horizon of time, and we tend to see what lies beyond the horizon through rose-colored glasses. Which is not great news for the complex long term perils of our unsustainable ways.
In Question Two you were probably more moved by the death of the one boy than the 5 million. That's because we commonly react more powerfully, emotionally, to dangers that are represented by a face, or a name, or some real tangible victim. A person, like you. Numbers are abstract. People are real. Ideas may get us to think, but risks presented as real people get us to feel, and act. Which is why people give more money to help one or two identified orphaned children than to help "all those orphaned children all over the world". As Stalin himself observed "One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic."
Well, where are the individual faces and names of the victims of climate change? (Polar bears don't count.) Certainly there are people suffering because of sea level rise, and more frequent extreme weather, and melting permafrost on which a lot of buildings in cold northern parts of the world are built. But those victims remain faceless, nameless, anonymous. The dramatic perils we face from the unsustainable way the species is impacting the biosphere remain abstract, and as a result we don't lose much sleep about them.
And Question Three - death by superbug infection - probably isn't something you're losing sleep over either, because it's not something you think can happen to you. It makes complete sense that we have evolved to worry more about risks that threaten us directly than risks that only threaten others. Well, can you name one way that climate change is going to seriously negatively effect you in the net decade? Most people, even the most devoted environmentalists, can't. Which helps explain why most surveys find that a majority of people believe climate change is real, and already happening, but they aren't willing to do much or pay much, or push politicians too hard to act.
So we are overly optimistic abut the future, unmoved by abstract faceless risks presented on large scales, and we don't worry much about risks that don't threaten us personally. Those are just three of several parts of our risk perception system that bode poorly for dealing with threats like climate change and deforestation and overfishing the oceans and loss of potable water...the humongous harms we face from our unsustainable ways. But before you either slit your wrists or dive into total what-the-hell hedonism, there is good news. Because we understand the risk perception system so well, and its limitations, we have the power to at least try to overcome them. Some Part Two...coming in the next few days.

More from David Ropeik
More from Psychology Today
More from David Ropeik
More from Psychology Today