Risky Business

These feel like frightening times. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and terrorism are only the latest in a litany of fresh perils, from snipers to West Nile virus to mad cow disease. Many say things are riskier for humans now than they have ever been.

The greater danger, however, may not be from the risks themselves, but from our failure to accurately identify which ones are really dangerous and which ones aren’t. Risk misperception—too much fear of lesser bogeymen and not enough fear of the bigger ones—leads to dangerous choices both by individuals and society.

Researchers have found that risks have characteristics that determine how we subconsciously “decide”—based on emotion and intuition as much as or more than on the facts—what to be afraid of and how afraid to be. Their work helps explain why our fears so often don’t match the facts.

They have found, for instance, that we are often more frightened of a risk when it’s new than after we’ve lived with it for a while. So fear runs high in communities where West Nile virus first shows up, but subsides in the following years—even though the disease is still around and killing people. Similarly, humans are always more afraid of any risk when it is fraught with uncertainty. Take the D.C. sniper case of last year. A lot of intelligent people knew their personal risk of being shot was tiny. Yet many were terrified because they didn’t know who the sniper was, who he’d shoot next, where, or when.

Lack of a sense of control also makes a risk more frightening, which explains why driving is less frightening to some than air travel. The feeling of control is why we buy duct tape, build fall out shelters or decide not to travel to places where terrorists have struck. And the less we trust the people or institutions that are supposed to protect us, or the companies or government processes exposing us to a risk, the more afraid we’ll be, and vice versa.

A risk that kills in a particularly awful way, like shark attacks, is scarier than one which kills in a less dreadful way. Fear of cancer and the hazards that cause cancer—radiation, industrial chemicals and so on—is informed by dread rather than rationality. And yet heart disease, which evokes less fear in many people, kills roughly 25 percent more Americans each year than does cancer.

We’re often more worried about man-made risks than those which are natural. Solar radiation often seems less frightening than anthropogenic radiation from nuclear power, cell phones or microwave ovens. And we constantly make risk judgments based on comparisons between risk and benefit. The greater the supposed benefit of a choice, the smaller the perceived risk that comes along with it. “First responders” aren’t getting smallpox vaccinations because, though the risk of the smallpox vaccine may be very low, the benefit—protection from an apparently non-existent threat—is smaller.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Class of 1904, was half right when he warned that we have to fear fear itself. As Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University and others have found, stress is bad for human health. Chronic stress suppresses the immune system. Worry too much about getting sick, and you’re more likely to get sick, or sicker, from any infectious disease. Stress also impairs memory and learning, increases the risk of Type II diabetes, and accelerates osteoporosis.

Fear can lead to dangerous choices. Driving may feel safer than flying. It’s not. Buy a gun if it makes you feel safer, but the risk is higher when a gun is around than when it isn’t. Take an antibiotic you don’t need and the germs can mutate so the next time you take it, when you’re actually sick, it won’t work.

But not enough fear can also be dangerous. People unafraid of natural risks like solar radiation, or risks they think they can control like driving, or risks that are associated with perceived benefits, such as smoking or alcohol consumption or fat-and-calorie-rich diets, fail to take adequate precautions—and they too face a greater likelihood of premature death.

And at the societal level, when we demand government protection from the risks we’re all afraid of—risks that hit our emotional hot buttons even though they may not necessarily be the ones that threaten us the most—time and money devoted to these lesser risks aren’t available to protect us from the bigger ones, and some of the people left exposed to those big ones die.

So the problem is risk misperception. And the solution is to counterbalance our emotional reactions to SARS or terrorism or any risk by protecting ourselves with the facts. Informed caution is healthier for each of us, and in turn will free the leaders of social institutions to make reasoned risk management choices that will maximize public and environmental health with the most efficient use of limited resources.

The vaccine of keeping risk in perspective is one of the healthiest medicines we can take.

David Ropeik is the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. He is co-author of RISK! A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You.