Why We Can't Weigh Risk

I hate flying, but I don't think twice about packing my kids into the car and driving home late at night to avoid traffic. Of course I know there's a much greater chance of an accident on the road then in the air, but I'd still choose ground transportation anytime. Why?

Well, according to my pal Karen Weintraub's story in the Boston Globe today, humans are basically pathetic at weighing risk, even if we are intellectually aware of all the relevant facts and statistics.

And when there's a perceived benefit to a risky activity, it seems to be even harder to avoid, researchers find. Weintraub looks at the example of overexposure to the sun. She writes:

It’s not that we’re stupid: Sunburns have certainly taught most of us the downside of too much sun. It’s just that our emotions and perceptions of the world temper our intellect. The sun feels good on our skin, it’s natural and familiar, so how could it be bad? And we can always go inside — our sun exposure is mostly within our control. So we downplay the warnings from our factual mind and enjoy the warm sensation on our skin.

“It’s about how a risk feels, not what the statistics or the science say,’’ according to David Ropeik, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, and author of the new book, “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.’’

Indeed, the decisions we make about risk are far more complicated than cut and dry calculations about costs versus benefits, Weintraub notes, there's a powerful emotional component too, which is, of course, why I hate flying.

“Our thinking about risk is influenced by two different processes,’’ said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. The first is an analytic process that’s based on numbers, fact, and logic. “The other is just intuitive or a gut feeling, and we use both of those mechanisms to evaluate risk.’’

This program aired on July 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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