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Public perceptions of risk.

PEOPLE IN INDUSTRIALIZED NATIONS HAVE BECOME HEALTHIER AND SAFER ON AVERAGE. YET THEY HAVE BECOME MORE-RATHER THAN LESS-CONCERNED ABOUT RISK, AND THEY FEEL INCREASINGLY VULNERABLE TO THE RISKS OF MODERN LIFE. THE WAY PEOPLE PERCEIVE RISK, OR RISK PERCEPTION, CAN BE CHARACTERIZED AS A BATTLEGROUND OF STRONG AND CONFLICTING VIEWS. EXPERTS WHO STUDY RISK PERCEPTION ATTEMPT TO UNDERSTAND WHY PEOPLE'S CONCERNS ARE INCREASING ABOUT RISK AND WHY THEIR PERCEPTIONS ARE SO OFTEN AT ODDS WITH WHAT THEY REALLY SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT.

THE STAKES ARE HIGH: These perceptions and the opposition to technologies that accompany them have puzzled and frustrated industrialists and regulators alike. These paradoxical perceptions have led numerous observers to argue that the American public's apparent pursuit of a zero-risk society" threatens the nation's political and economic stability.

Multiple Dimensions

THE CHART ON the following page represents a spatial display of hazards-, the factors in this space reflect the degree to which a risk is perceived to be known or understood (vertical dimension) and the degree to which it evokes perceptions of dread, instability and catastrophe (horizontal dimension). Research has demonstrated that social response to risk is closely related to the position of a hazard within this space. The further to the right a hazard appears, the higher its perceived risk, the more people want to see its current risks reduced and the more they want to see strict regulation employed to achieve reduced risk. By contrast, the way experts perceive risk is not closely related to any of these various risk characteristics. Instead, experts appear to see riskiness as synonymous with expected annual mortality. As a result, many of the conflicts over "risk" may result from experts and laypersons having different definitions of the concept. Expert recitations of risk statistics" often do little to change people's attitudes and perceptions.

Research has compared perceptions of risk and benefit from several activities and technologies. It is particularly instructive to compare perceptions of various forms of radiation with chemical technology, for instance. Nuclear power is perceived as having a very high risk factor and a low benefit yield whereas diagnostic X rays reflect the opposite. A similar finding occurs with chemicals. Non-medical sources of exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides, food additives, alcohol and cigarettes, are seen as having a very low benefit and a high risk. Chemicals as pharmaceuticals, such as prescription drugs, antibiotics and vaccines, are generally seen as having a high benefit and a low risk, despite the fact that they can be highly toxic.

The favorable perceptions and acceptance of risks from X rays and medicines demonstrates that acceptance of risk is conditioned by perception of direct benefits and by trust in those responsible for managing such technologies, in this case the medical and pharmaceutical professions. it is also clear that there is no general or universal pattern of perceptions for radiation and chemicals. Perception and acceptance of risk is determined by the specific context in which the public is exposed to these substances.

Perceptions of risk have influenced legislative priorities of such government entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Moreover, when something goes wrong, as in the case of an accident, discovery of pollution, product tampering or other such catastrophes, perceptions (interacting with social and institutional forces) can trigger massive social, economic and political consequences. Thus, an unfortunate event can be viewed as a stone dropped in a pond. The ripples spread outward, encompassing first the victims that were directly affected, then the responsible company or agency, and in the extreme, it can reach other companies, agencies and industries.

Some events make only small ripples-, others make big ones. Accidents or problems involving hazards in the upper-right quadrant of the spacial diagram have been found to be especially capable of producing significant effects. As a result, risk management decisions involving these hazards need to be especially sensitive to these potentially larger impact and catastrophic situations.

Rising Concerns WHY ARE we getting more concerned about risk as we become safer and healthier?

Although research has not yet provided a complete answer to this question, it points toward a complex mixture of scientific, social, political, legal, institutional and psychological factors that appear to be contributing to perceptions of increased risk.

One factor is that we have greater ability to detect minute levels of toxic substances. We can detect parts per billion or trillion, or even smaller amounts of chemicals in water, food and air, and in our own bodies. At the same time, both laypeople and scientists have greater difficulty in understanding the health implications of this new knowledge.

Second, we have an increasing reliance on new powerful technologies that can have serious consequences if something goes wrong. When we lack familiarity with a technology, we are naturally suspicious of it and cautious in accepting its risks. People were quite fearful of the steam engine and the automobile when they were introduced, and fear of flying was far more prevalent 20 years ago than today. While first-hand experience with these technologies quickly led people to be more comfortable with them, we have little direct experience to calm our fears about the accident potential of a nuclear reactor or the carcinogenic potential of a chemical.

We have also experienced a number of spectacular and catastrophic events, such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal and the Challenger accident. Such catastrophes get extensive media coverage which highlights the failures of supposedly "fail-safe" engineering systems in the risk-management process. In addition, the benefits from technology are often taken for granted. When we fail to perceive the significant benefits of an activity, we are intolerant toward any level of risk, even a small one.

There is an immense amount of litigation over risk problems, which brings these problems into public focus and pits expert against expert, leading to a loss of credibility on both sides. Scientific risk assessments, while highly valuable in many instances, are not convincing enough in the face of hostile, adversarial attacks. Another reason we have become concerned about risk problems is that they are brought to the public's attention and kept there by special interest groups, which are increasingly well-funded and sophisticated in getting their messages across to the public.

We are now being told that we have the ability to control many elements of risk, for example, by wearing seat belts, changing our diets, getting more exercise and employing alternatives to the use of toxics. Perhaps the increased awareness that we have control over many risks makes us more frustrated and angered at those exposures to risks that are imposed on us involuntarily, such as air pollution, pesticide use and food additives.

Psychological studies indicate that, when people are wealthier and have more to lose, they become more cautious when making decisions. The same may happen as we get healthier. Finally, there may be real changes in the nature of today's risks. For example, many people believe there is a greater potential for catastrophe than there was in the past due to the complexity, potency and interconnection of technological systems, and the widespread exposure of millions of people to new technologies and substances. A case in point is the artificial sweetener Aspartame, which only a few years after its introduction is used by hundreds of millions of people daily. If some hazard has been missed in the testing of this chemical, as in the case of the drug Thalidomide, the potential for harm is enormous.

Rationality of Perceptions

WHILE MANY OBSERVERS have labelled public perceptions of risk irrational, the research and analyses paint a much different picture. Whereas experts define risk in a narrow, quantitative way, the public has a wider, qualitative and complex view, incorporating legitimate, value-laden considerations such as uncertainty, dread, catastrophic potential and controllability into the risk/benefit equation.

Perceptions of risk appear to be a product of the kind of society in which we live. Our brand of Jeffersonian democracy, our intrusive media, our powerful special interest groups and our enchant for litigation, combine to overpower the young science of risk assessment. No one is happy about this state of affairs; industrialists, scientists, politicians and the public are united in their anger and frustration about the way in which risks are currently managed.

Perception of risk is a reality in itself, having a great impact on our way of life. This impact cannot be lessened without drastic and politically unacceptable changes in the structure of our society. We must learn to treat societal perceptions as legitimate. We must attempt to understand them and incorporate public concerns and wisdom into the decision-making process, along with the knowledge attained by scientific risk assessments.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Risk Management Society Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Slovic, Paul
Publication:Risk Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:1439
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