While doing some research on perceived risk, I came across an article from the regrettably defunct “The Skinny On” series from Discovery Online. It’s a really entertaining essay about why we find certain things like nuclear power and cockroaches scary–though risk experts don’t classify either as particularly unsafe–and find swimming and X-rays just fine and dandy, though risk bean counters rank these as far more dangerous.
It’s all about the persistent dichotomy of risk assessment and risk perception. The essay discusses risk studies that have attempted to explain the chasm between risk–evidenced via research and compiled statistics–and our perception of risk. The general conclusion: our risk priorities are likely eschew, but we usually have a reasonable reason to explain why. From the article:
- Natural risks are less scary. Perhaps this explains why we loathe nuclear power but ignore the radioactive threat of natural radon gas.
- Risks imposed on us seem worse. We can decide if we want to risk swimming, but when a hazardous waste incinerator sprouts next door we feel powerless and panicky.
- Risks with an obvious benefit are less daunting. One reason we give appreciative ratings to X-rays and surgery is that we focus on the payoff.
- Risks associated with complex technologies and catastrophes are greater. This is partly because the media dwell on catastrophes. If each day’s headline read, “One in 50 of You Will Die in a Car Crash” (and this is an amazing, true fact), we’d think twice about risking our necks in those death traps every time we need a donut.
Here’s a link to a lively TrueTube video on the topic.