Public Perception of Risk

Article excerpt

The practice of risk assessment has steadily increased in prominence during the past several decades, as risk managers in government and industry have sought to develop more effective ways to meet public demands for a safer and healthier environment. Dozens of scientific disciplines have been mobilized to provide technical information about risk, and billions of dollars have been expended to create this information and distill it in the context of risk assessments.

Ironically, as our society and other industrialized nations have expended this great effort to make life safer and healthier, many in the public have become more, rather than less, concerned about risk. These individuals see themselves as exposed to more serious risks than were faced by people in the past, and they believe that this situation is growing worse. Nuclear and chemical technologies (except for medicines) have been stigmatized with the perception that they entail unnaturally great risks. As a result, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to find host sites for disposing of high-level or low-level radioactive wastes, or for incinerators, landfills, and other chemical facilities.

Public perceptions of risk have been found to determine the priorities and legislative agendas of regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), much to the distress of agency technical experts who argue that other hazards deserve higher priority. The bulk of the EPA's budget in recent years has gone to hazardous waste, primarily because the public believes that the cleanup of Superfund sites is the most serious environmental threat that the country faces. Hazards such as indoor air pollution are considered more serious health risks by experts, but are not perceived that way by the public.

Great disparities in monetary expenditures designed to prolong life, as shown in Table 1, may also be traced to public perceptions of risk. As noteworthy as the large sums of money devoted to protection from radiation and chemical toxins, are the relatively small sums expended to reduce mundane hazards such as automobile accidents. Studies have shown that serious risks from natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes generate relatively little public concern and demand for protection.

Such discrepancies are seen as irrational by many harsh critics of public perceptions. These critics draw a sharp dichotomy between the experts and the public. Experts are seen as purveyors of risk assessments which are typically characterized as objective, analytic, wise, and rational. In contrast, the public is seen to rely upon perceptions of risk that are subjective, often hypothetical, emotional, foolish, and irrational (1,2). Weiner defends the dichotomy, arguing, "This separation of reality and perception is pervasive in a technically sophisticated society, and serves to achieve a necessary emotional distance...." (3)

In sum, polarized views, controversy, and overt conflict have become pervasive within risk assessment and risk management. A desperate search for salvation through risk communication efforts began in the mid-1980s, yet despite some localized successes, this effort has not stemmed the major conflicts or reduced much of the dissatisfaction with risk management.

The Need for a New Perspective

I believe that new perspectives and new approaches are needed to manage risks effectively in our society. I also believe that social science research has provided several valuable insights into the nature of the problem, and without indicating a clear solution, does point to some promising prescriptive actions.

For example, early studies of risk perception demonstrated that the public's concerns could not simply be blamed on ignorance or irrationality. Instead, research has shown that much of the public's reactions to risk (including reactions that may underlie the data in Table 1) can be attributed to a sensitivity to technical, social, and psychological qualities of hazards that are not well-modeled in technical risk assessments (e. …