Winter 2002

Understanding Factors of Risk Perception

By David Ropeik

What follows is a basic list of risk perception factors. (They are culled from 20 years of research and are reviewed for this article by Paul Slovic.) Often, several of these factors can be involved simultaneously. For example, fear of West Nile virus is high in some areas because awareness is high, it’s new, and there remains some uncertainty. However, fear of particulate air pollution remains low (compared with what scientists say is the actual risk) RELATED ARTICLE
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because it’s chronic and awareness is still low. Factors can compete. Vaccines are human-made, threaten children, and state laws impose the risk on parents and kids, all of which raise fear. But for some people, the risk outweighs the benefit enough to counterbalance these other factors. Some people fear a risk more than other people do. While all of us fear similar things, for similar reasons, individual circumstances overlay those factors. We all fear cancer, for example, but men have a greater fear of prostate cancer and women of breast cancer. Parents fear child abductions more than nonparents do. Risk perception factors are dynamic over time. Awareness goes up or down. With time, new risks become familiar. Uncertainty, as with electrical and magnetic fields, ultimately gets resolved as scientific information develops. —D.R.

  1. Trust vs. lack of trust: The more we trust the people informing us about a risk, the less afraid we are. The more we trust the process used in deciding whether we will be exposed to a hazard, the less afraid we are. When we trust the agency or company exposing us to the risk, we are less afraid. When we trust government agencies that are supposed to be protecting us, we are less afraid. The less we trust the people informing us, the people protecting us, or the process determining our exposure to a risk, the more afraid we are.

  2. Imposed vs. voluntary: We are much more afraid of a risk that is imposed on us (the driver in the car next to us using his cell phone) than when we voluntarily expose ourselves to the same risk (we are using a cell phone while we drive).

  3. Natural vs. human-made: If the risk is natural, such as radiation from the sun, we are less afraid. If it’s human-made, such as radiation from nuclear power or some industrial process, we are more afraid. This factor helps explain excessive public fear of pesticides and industrial chemicals.

  4. Catastrophic vs. chronic: We tend to be more afraid of things that can kill a lot of us, suddenly and violently and all in one place, such as a plane crash, than things like heart disease, which causes hundreds of thousands more deaths, but one at a time, over time, and not all in the same place.

  5. The dread factor: The worse the outcome from a risk, such as being eaten alive by a shark, the more afraid of it we are. This helps explain our excessive fear of carcinogens or potential carcinogens. Cancer ranks high on the dread scale.

  6. Hard to understand: The harder a potential risk is to understand—such as nuclear power or industrial chemicals—the more afraid we are likely to be. And when the risk is invisible, the fear gets even worse.

  7. Uncertainty: This is less a matter of the science being hard to understand and more a matter of not having enough answers. This factor explains widespread fear of new technologies and why, as the answers come in (artificial sweeteners, silicone in breast implants, electrical and magnetic fields), fear goes down.

  8. Familiar vs. new: When we first encounter a risk (West Nile virus as it spreads to new communities), we are more afraid than after we have lived with the risk for a while. When mad cow disease first showed up in just a handful of cows in Germany in 2000, a poll found that 85 percent of the public thought this new risk was a serious threat to public health. That poll also asked people in Great Britain, where the disease had killed more than 100 people and hundreds of thousands of animals. But because people in the U.K. had lived with it for 14 years, only 40 percent of them said mad cow disease was a serious threat to public health.

  9. Awareness: When the news is full of stories about a given risk, like ozone depletion, our fear of that risk is greater. For example, on July 3, 2002, amid a flurry of “Will the terrorists strike on July 4th?” stories, the FBI said requests for handgun purchases were one-third higher than expected. But awareness doesn’t just come from the news media. When, as individuals, we’ve recently experienced something bad, such as the death of a friend or relative to cancer, or witnessed a crime or an accident, awareness of that risk is greater, and so is our fear.

  10. A known victim: A risk that is made real by a specific victim, such as the recent child abductions making news, becomes more frightening, even though the actual risk may be no greater than it was before it was personified by this victim.

  11. Future generations: When kids are at risk, our fear is greater. Asbestos in a workplace doesn’t frighten us as much as asbestos in schools.

  12. Does it affect me?: We don’t perceive risk to “them,” to society, as fearfully as we do risks to ourselves. This explains the desire for zero risk. A person doesn’t care if the risk of cancer from pesticides on food is one in a million, if he or she could be that one.

  13. Risk vs. benefit: The more we perceive a benefit from a potentially hazardous agent or process or activity, such as drugs or vaccines or skiing or bungee jumping, the less fearful we are of the risk.

  14. Control vs. no control: If a person feels as though he or she can control the outcome of a hazard, that individual is less likely to be afraid. Driving is one obvious example, as is riding a bike and not wearing a helmet. Control can either be physical (driving the car, operating the bicycle) or a feeling of controlling a process, as when a person participates, setting risk management policy through involvement in public hearings or voting.


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