What Are We Afraid Of?

11 Jun, 2014

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President
June 11, 2014

Life is full of risk. Headlines scream about a ferry boat disaster in South Korea, a missing Malaysian airplane, record flooding in Europe and wildfires in California. We also face threats of terrorism, high unemployment, product recalls, pandemics, earthquakes and hurricanes. But why does the public become panicked or outraged about some threats while ignoring others?

It all has to do with risk perception: There are psychological patterns governing what makes people fearful. Sometimes these fears match actual dangers; sometimes they don’t.

Yet politicians and business executives often don’t understand why the public overestimates or underestimates risk. Why aren’t people more upset about climate change? Why do they fear illegal immigrants? Why do we need so many regulations governing the flammability of children’s pajamas? And — just in time for summer — why do people worry so much about shark attacks when they are 45 percent more likely to die from a collapsed sand hole while digging on the beach?

In the aptly titled 2002 book Risk, David Ropeik and George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis examined this phenomenon and reached some fascinating conclusions. “Essentially,” the authors wrote, “any given risk has a set of identifiable characteristics that help predict what emotional responses that risk will trigger.”

Here are some major risk perception factors outlined in the book, along with more current examples:

  • “New” risk versus “old” risk. The MERS virus, which has killed 190 people in Saudi Arabia in the past two years, causes fear because of its mysterious origins and potential for global impact. When the H1N1 virus was first discovered, it had the same effect.
  • Man-made risk versus natural risk. Community groups may oppose construction of a new electric substation or pipeline because of safety concerns that have little to do with safety performance. Yet few are outraged about naturally occurring radon gas in the home. According to the EPA, radon kills about 20,000 people a year and is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
  • Imposed risk versus chosen risk. Hearing that an oil refinery is being built in your town might make you outraged; yet moving into a town with an existing oil refinery doesn’t affect you the same way, because you are making a choice to live there.
  • No-benefit risk versus risk with tradeoffs. Despite San Francisco’s predisposition toward earthquakes, it’s still a popular place to live. Likewise, highway driving can be dangerous, but your car gives you the freedom to go where you want to go.
  • Gruesome risk versus regular risk. Death by shark bite says it all.
  • Distrustful risk versus trustworthy risk. People are more frightened of risks that come from people, companies or governments they distrust.
  • Uncontrolled risk versus controlled risk. You’re more likely to die in a traffic accident than in a plane crash, but flying in a plane means you must depend on the pilot’s skills. For many people, this loss of control feeds their fear.
  • Risk with uncertainty versus risk with certainty. Advancements in science, from genetically modified food to nanotechnology, often face opposition because many people don’t understand them — and don’t want to understand them.
  • High-awareness risk versus low-awareness risk. After the Sept. 11 attacks, concern about terrorism was acute because awareness was so high. Meanwhile, fear of street crime and climate change declined because those concerns were no longer top of mind.
  • Risks for children versus risks for adults. A product posing a danger to children will always draw more attention than one posing a danger to adults. Think about all those news reports on “The Five Most Dangerous Toys Under Your Christmas Tree.”
  • Personalized risk versus generalized risk. The Sept. 11 attacks significantly raised fear levels in New York and Washington, because people living and working in those cities were directly affected. Concern about future attacks wasn’t as high in Des Moines or St. Louis.

Now, with these factors in mind, let’s look at the public’s reaction to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred four years ago this month. The spill, which was the largest environmental disaster in the nation’s history, created risk that was man-made. It was imposed, not chosen, in a region of the country that had already been hit by hurricanes and a poor economy. In order to resolve the crisis, Gulf Coast residents had to rely on a large corporation and the federal government — institutions the public tends not to trust. In addition, the average person didn’t know anything about deepwater drilling or “top hat” containment domes. This was a classic high-risk situation with a high level of public fear.

On the other hand, offshore drilling is a “risk with a tradeoff.” Despite the dangers and uncertainties, the nation needs this activity to maintain ample supplies of oil and gas and provide jobs on the Gulf Coast. Also, for many Americans living far away from Louisiana and Alabama, offshore drilling feels like a “generalized risk,” not something they experience personally.

Over time, this second group of concerns has served as a counterweight to the first group. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll revealed that 58 percent of Americans now support increased offshore drilling for oil and gas, up from 44 percent at the height of the crisis in 2010.

All of this helps explain why President Obama and environmental groups have had such difficulty channeling concern about the oil spill into a campaign to reduce the nation’s reliance on oil. Sometimes a crisis will galvanize public support for a cause. Other times, when the cause is complicated and involves tough tradeoffs, it can be difficult to turn outrage into political action.

Americans were certainly fearful and infuriated about the spill. That was to be expected. But because of conflicting risk perceptions, they were also confused about what they wanted government to accomplish. Many asked themselves, “Which is riskier: doing something or doing nothing?”

Comments? Email me.

An earlier version of this blog post was published on June 23, 2010.