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Attention

Paying Attention to a Risk Makes It Seem More Severe

Research explores how simple changes in attention affect beliefs about risk.

Key points

  • When people pay attention to a particular risk, it seems more frightening, and so they feel like they need to do something about it.
  • People assess risks based on how they feel about a particular option. If it creates a sense of fear and anxiety, the option is seen as riskier.
  • Studies manipulating people's attention support the concept that other concerns can guide actions when they are not paying attention to risk.
iStock image licensed to Art Markman
Source: iStock image licensed to Art Markman

A critical part of decision-making is the ability to judge the costs and benefits of options. Some of the costs related to options happen in the moment. You might have to spend money or time choosing an option, and buying a candy bar costs money. The option might also require some physical or emotional pain. Getting a flu shot might make your arm sore, and delivering criticism to a colleague might be socially uncomfortable.

Often, though, some of the costs of an option aren’t certain. Instead, they are risks that have to be weighed against the benefits. A risk is a chance that something terrible will happen either in the short- or long term. Driving to work involves some chance that you will get in an accident. Continuing to drive cars over the long term contributes to climate change that could lead to various bad outcomes like severe weather and wildfires.

Consistent with work reflecting that there are two reasoning systems, there are also two ways that risk affects thinking. We can assess risks rationally by determining the probability of a bad outcome and giving it weight in a choice based on the severity of the outcome. That kind of process is a significant part of what actuaries do when trying to develop insurance prices. More often, though, people assess risks based on how they feel about a particular option. If that option creates a sense of fear and anxiety, it is also thought to be riskier.

If these emotional reactions influence beliefs about risks, then it ought to be possible to influence how dangerous something is by doing something that affects their emotional reaction. That possibility was explored in a paper by Kellen Mrkva, Jennifer Cole, and Leaf Van Boven in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General published in 2021.

They pointed out that when people pay attention to scary things, it increases their fear and anxiety about those things. That is one reason why people look away from frightening things in the environment.

Across four studies, study participants were shown images associated with long-term risks like air pollution and the extinction of animals. At the start of the study, participants were taught which images were associated with each risk. For example, a picture of smokestacks signified air pollution, while a picture of a panda signified extinction.

The second half of each study manipulated people’s attention toward or away from images in some way. For example, in one study, participants were shown images associated with ten risks in sequence. Participants had to press a key after seeing each image. They were told to respond with the “J” key for one of the pictures (selected at random) and the F key for all the other pictures. In this way, one of the pictures was more the focus of attention than the others.

After doing this several times, participants were asked to make several ratings, including how severe the risk was, whether the risk should be a priority of government agencies that deal with the environment, and whether the threat was frightening. The risk that was highlighted (requiring people to pay attention to it) was rated as more severe, rated as being more of a priority for the government, and more frightening.

The four studies in this paper used different methods for influencing people’s attention. For example, another study showed pairs of pictures side-by-side. Just before showing the pictures, a square appeared either on the left or on the right, highlighting the location where one of the pictures would appear. The risk associated with the picture at the highlighted location was consistently judged as more severe than the risk associated with the other image that came up on the screen.

These studies help explain why people’s willingness to engage with particular long-term risks changes dramatically over time. When people pay attention to a particular risk, it seems more frightening, and so they feel like they need to do something about it. When they are not paying attention to it, other concerns can guide actions. Or, as the old saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.

References

Mrkva, K., Cole, J.C., & Van Boven, L. (2021). Attention increases environmental risk perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150(1), 83-102.

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