It’s Not the Scary Things that Kill You

Recently that the German government moved to phase out nuclear energy in the country. The industry, it reckoned, poses an unacceptable risk to the health of the population, despite the fact that its atomic energy program is well regulated and has never resulted in an injury or death.

Coincidentally, around the same time an outbreak of E. coli spread by organic bean sprouts killed dozens of people in the country. Yet in the aftermath no one suggested that organic vegetables should be banned.

Clearly, what the general public perceives as dangerous is very different from mortality statistics alone would tell us. Are we simply irrational, or is there an underlying logic behind our intuitive perception of risk?

For answers, I turned to David Ropeik, a well-known risk management consultant, fellow Psychology Today blogger, and author of How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.

JW: Can you explain this disparity to me, between the reaction to atomic power and to the E. coli outbreak?

DR: Risk is subjective, a mix of the few facts we have at any given time, and how those facts feel. We have developed a set of instincts that help us gauge potentially risky situations, quickly, before all the facts are in. Which is pretty important for survival, though it may not make for the most fact-based, rational choices. In essence, risks have personality traits, psychological characteristics that make some feel scarier than others, the statistics and facts notwithstanding.

JW: So what’s the personality of nuclear power?

DR: A couple of points:

  • We more afraid of risks that are human-made than those that are natural (the sun is a known carcinogen – kills 8,700 Americans a year from skin cancer).
  • We’re more afraid of risks imposed on us than the same risk if we take it ourselves (like nuclear radiation for medical diagnostics or treatment.)
  • We’re more afraid of risks we can’t detect with our own senses (radiation), or risks that are hard to understand (radiation), both of which leave us without the knowledge we need to protect ourselves.
  • We’re more afraid of risks the more pain and suffering they cause. Nuclear radiation is associated with cancer, which is up at the top of the ‘pain and suffering’ list.
  • We’re more afraid of risks that come from untrusted sources, like the nuclear power industry, or risks where we don’t trust the government to protect us (the Japanese government did a lousy job with trustworthiness.)
  • We’re more afraid of risks that happen in large scale singular events – catastrophes – than risks that happen over time and space.
  • We’re more afraid of risks that have been ‘stigmatized’ by previous events (Three Mile Island., Chernobyl, even the atomic bombs in Japan) so as soon as we hear about them our mind instantly sounds the alarm. The nuclear issue in Germany has been boiling for decades. Fukushima just relit already smoldering fires.
  • We’re more afraid of risks when we see the risks but don’t clearly see the benefits. (Can you tell it was a nuke plant that made your lights go on?)
  • Some people highlight the risks of modern technology because they feel that the modern economy, and it’s products and power brokers, create a hierarchy of economic and social class, an unjust caste system where the benefits and power go to the rich and the rest of society doesn’t have an equal shot. This comes from what is called the Theory of Cultural Cognition. These folks are known by that theory as Egalitarians.

JW: And what, by way of comparison, is the personality of E. coli?

DR: I should point out, by the way, that there was a strong public response, it’s just that it wasn’t as freaked out as for nukes.

We’re less afraid of risks with which we’re moderately familiar. We’ve been through enough foodborne disease outbreaks to have some familiarity with them.
We’re less afraid of risks we don’t think will happen to us. Lots of people just stopped eating veggies.
We’re less afraid of risks over which we have some control (stop eating veggies).
We’re less afraid of risks if we think the authorities are acting aggressively to protect us. The Germans did…though their response was perhaps too aggressive at the beginning leading to confusion.
We’re less afraid of risks that cause relatively less pain and suffering. The E. coli mostly cause stomach upset.

JW: Do you think the media’s coverage of these issues has helped assuage the public’s fears?
DR: On the contrary. We’re more afraid of risks the more aware of them we are, which made both the nuclear and e.coli risks more scary.

JW: So what do public policy makers need to understand, when it comes to minimizing the general public freak out?
DR: Risk communication consultants like me are always cautioning our clients to be very careful with risk comparisons. It’s tempting to put two risks side by side to make one look bigger than the other, usually using the numbers, the odds, the likelihood. But that matters less to risk perception than how the risk feels, and unless the risks compare on those characteristics, the comparison can actually backfire and make the audience think the communicator is trying to spin the numbers, without respecting how the risk they’re communicating about feels.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not the Scary Things that Kill You”

  1. “Coincidentally, around the same time an outbreak of E. coli spread by organic bean sprouts killed dozens of people in the country. Yet in the aftermath no one suggested that organic vegetables should be banned.”

    This was a pretty good article and David Ropeik made some interesting points about fear and risk in general but I was thrown off at the beginning with this. Why would there be any push for banning organic vegetables due to E. coli?

  2. It’s not really a good idea to measure risks of rare events based on historical performance. Just because nuclear disasters haven’t killed that many people doesn’t mean that nuclear energy is safe. Fukushima and Chernobyl both could have been much worse.

    I also wonder if there’s a moral aspect, beyond just the death risks, when comparing things like nuclear power, food-borne disease, highway driving, terror attacks. Nuclear waste doesn’t just kill people, it contaminates the world far into the future and creates unforeseeable risks. The uranium we use for fission was created in the big bang and was stable enough to last until now. The fission products are far more unstable and radioactive, so fission increases the total radioactivity of the earth and uses one of the only truly limited natural resources. E. Coli just kills some people now, but has very limited risks and moral implications.

    On another note, I like exploring the idea that we don’t perceive risks accurately. For instance, driving on a US highway is relatively risky, but many people choose to do it every day and don’t seem to be afraid of it. They even see accidents and deaths once in a while, but are unfazed. Can you comment more on that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.