Fear is a natural human instinct, but sometimes these instincts fail us. We are all guilty of being too cautious or not cautious enough. Mental processes like the availability heuristic skew our perception of danger, and psychologist Paul Slovic is here to talk about our risk assessment disconnect.
Publish Date: Feb 03, 2021
for years, Paul, the movie Jaws made people afraid of going to the beach. Did you ever think twice about swimming in the ocean after watching the movie? E laughed because I'm not a swimmer. I was a child in Chicago in the 19 forties, during the polio epidemic. We weren't allowed to go swimming because I thought it would make us susceptible to polio. So I never learned to swim very well. So I stay away from water, so I I don't worry about sharks. But it was clear that many people who lived, you know, near oceans, uh, were quite worried about it. So there's a serious mismatch, of course, between how afraid people are of sharks and how afraid we ought to be. Sharks kill maybe five or six people a year. That's worldwide. And meanwhile, humans kill about, you know, 100 million sharks. Ah, year. If anything, it's it's the sharks who should be making horror movies about us, right? The movie created vivid images in our mind and a sense of experience, and so that creates a sense of risk of shark attacks much more powerfully than the statistics Dio. And of course, this is true, not just of shark attacks. It's true of all manner of things that Hollywood has told us about over the years. You know, everything from snakes to serial killers. The risks in our minds vastly exaggerate the actual risks off those things affecting us. Yes, what we find is that our sense of risk is influenced by the direct experiences we have and the indirect experiences we have through media such as film or the news media That's very powerful in influencing us. So when people think about risk, I think many people automatically assume that that risk is something that you're analyzing. You analyze what the risks are in a situation. But you and many others argue that most of the time when people are thinking about risks, they're actually not using analysis to evaluate risks. You mentioned a second ago that people use their feelings. Can you talk about this idea that for many people are emotions are affect is closely tied up in our perceptions of risk? We originally thought that people were analyzing risk, doing some form of calculating in their minds about you know, what the probability of something bad happening would be and you know how how serious that would be and perhaps even multiplying the severity of the outcome by the probability to get some sort of expectation of harm on Daz, we started toe to study this. We found out that basically, we can do those calculations, but it's certainly easier. Thio rely on our feelings. It's easy to do. It feels natural, and it usually gets us where we want except when it fails on. There's certain ways that our feelings deceive us. And that's what my colleagues and I study is. When can we trust our feelings? And when should we stop and think more carefully and reflectively and, you know, look to data and argument and science to make a decision. E was remembering one time I was in Costa Rica, I believe, and we were going zip lining and you know, you're you're attached to this wire that's about 200 ft above the earth and and I remember at the moment in which I was about to step off this ledge, I was just gripped with this sense of lunacy that what I was doing was absolutely insane. And at that point, of course, I was not calculating. What are the risks that the rope will break? What are the odds that the harness will come lose? It was entirely what I felt in my stomach. That essentially told me, This is an extremely risky activity. Yes, that's the way it goes After I had come to appreciate the concept of risk is feelings. I looked back in my own experience and recognize a very dramatic moment when my feelings were guiding me very powerful. And that was a time when I was driving on a busy freeway near Chicago and ran out of gas. E pulled the car off to the side of the road. And then I thought, Well, okay, I'd better go find a gas station, get a gas, can fill it and come back. But to do that, I realized I have to cross this freeway. And so I started to cross the freeway and I would take a step onto the pavement and be looking at the cars approaching at 60 miles an hour and how far away, and as I put my foot down, I would be gripped by this fear, and I would retreat back and wait in hopes that I would find a bigger gap where I could step out and wouldn't be afraid. No. Yeah, And in many ways this makes total sense. I mean, as you're telling the story, I'm gripped by a sense of fear, of thinking of you, Paul stepping out across six lanes of traffic in Chicago and a certain level. This system works very well much of the time. It's what it's what saying I mean the fact that you didn't have to calculate the speed of the moving cars and how much time they will get to get you and write all that down on a sheet of paper. You just were gripped by a sense that this is extremely unsafe and you step back. That kind of fear, that kind of risk perception holds us in good stead much of the time, does it? Not exactly. That's why we do it and we keep doing it is because most of the time relying on our feelings works for us. If our feelings have been conditioned properly by experience, eso is very adaptive, except when it goes wrong is that sometimes they