standard How risky is it? Rationalising the feeling of risk

Split-second shot

Does this picture make flying seem more or less risky?

Sometimes the risks that receive the most attention in hindsight are actually less likely than what we realise. But there are important reasons for finding effective ways to respond to high-profile risks. Thinking through risk and taking a rational approach to mitigating it, or becoming more resilient to it, may mean looking at risk in terms of applying regulations that reduce threats of harm from the start (as in the case of reducing risk through positive reinforcement), or better understanding how populations respond to risky behaviours like smoking.

Instead of analysing the risk, people often respond to the emotion or feeling a particular risk will incite. Risk of a large earthquake, nuclear meltdown, or lung cancer from smoking cigarettes are all risks that may produce emotional responses, what Professor Paul Slovic, a leader in psychological research of risk perception has called ‘the feeling of risk’, also known in psychology as the affect heuristic – the positive or negative feelings we associate with experience. Affect is used as a kind of mental shortcut in order for people to make decisions or solve problems quickly, it is also better known as ‘gut feeling’.

According to Slovic and other researchers in risk perception, what we judge to be ‘risky’ is not necessarily based on probability or likelihood, but rather on the way we feel about it. For example, traveling in a motor vehicle, although often viewed as relatively low-risk, is actually one of the most dangerous activities people engage with on a daily basis, especially in comparison to air travel which is sometimes viewed as riskier (as a rule people tend to spend more time traveling in cars vs aircraft to a given destination, which makes quite a difference in terms of ‘safety’). Slovic says human perception is ‘a dance between affect and reason’ because the thinking that arises from our experience and analytic thinking act together, they are not separate. Our feelings are still needed to guide rational action.

Even though  logic, reasoning and memory still informs our sense of risk, ultimately it will interplay with how we feel about something. If for example someone generally has a ‘bad feeling’ about flying this will be reflected in their reasoning in judging whether getting on a plane is risky or not, which can be determined by many things including past experiences or a recent television broadcast about a tragic plane crash. On the contrary, if someone has generally positive feelings about flying then they will perceive the risk associated with air travel as relatively low, and the low probability of plane crashes will help support this position. Affect then cannot only make things appear riskier, but also can make them ‘feel’ less risky.

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People who start smoking early in their lives tend to believe that they will be able to quit later on, many of them do not.

Smoking, belief and peer pressure

In the case of smoking, which is widely demonstrated to have a range of health risks, how people feel about smoking and the risks caused by smoking make a big difference in their behaviour. Many social scientists, including psychologists, tend to view the individual in risk situations as a ‘rational actor’ capable of making their own decisions about what risks to take and not to take by weighing up their costs and benefits. But Slovic and other researchers disagree with this view. The problem is that the rational actor model may not know what risks  actually exist and cigarette smoking is a perfect example, especially if people begin smoking at a young age.

If someone begins smoking at a young age they will often believe that they will be able to stop prior to experiencing any life threatening risks from smoking. What they don’t realise is that the risk of addiction is extremely high from the moment they light up a cigarette and inhale. They underestimate the risk because it doesn’t feel dangerous to them right away. Combine this with adverts that encourage a positive feeling about smoking by associating it with scenes such as picturesque mountain ranges or with Hollywood celebrities and the perceived risks may seem even smaller. Also, because the risks of smoking, such as lung cancer, are not normally visible, people are less likely to feel it will harm them. There is also the influence of ‘peer pressure’ to consider as well as imitating the behaviour of others, that modelling of smoking behaviour in populations can say something about, as small changes in a population can lead to sudden, radical shifts in behaviour (tipping points) that could continue in the long-term.

Whether people behave rationally about risk or not they are subject to a range of influences that may push them in one direction or the other when it comes to the decisions they make. All of this may have to do with affect as Slovic and other psychologists argue, but contact with peers also shapes our understanding of the world including the risks we take. In many cases the decisions people make about risk have a foundation in our own experience or memories, but to what degree they influence our perceptions of risk seems ultimately up to us.

References and Further Reading

‘Cigarette Smokers: Rational actors or rational fools?’ in Smoking, Risk, perception and policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Risk as Analysis and Risk as Feelings: Some Thoughts about Affect, Reason, Risk, and Rationality. Risk Analysis

Spread of smoking behaviour in populations through multiple peer influence. Tipping Points project

Is driving more dangerous than flying through ash? BBC News

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