In the last half century, some sociologists (e.g. Giddens, 1990; Beck, 1992) have suggested that our concerns with risk have shifted largely from what nature does to us to what we do to nature. Rather than being concerned with natural risks, we are increasingly concerned with manufactured risks.
Unlike natural risks, the risks that we manufacture are affected by how we perceive them. For example, consider the following apparent paradox. Road traffic increased thirtyfold in the last century, and common perceptions of the dangers of roads changed from roads as relatively safe places to roads as dangerous places. Yet the road-death figure per motor vehicle fell by about 100% (Adams 1995, p. 11, and statistics below).
The ‘objective’ measure of road safety is in contrast to perceptions of roads as unsafe. As social perceptions of road risk have changed, so too has our behaviour. Parents no longer allow their children to play in the road and they teach them to exercise greater vigilance when crossing the road. The risks we construct as a society are changed by our beliefs about them.
Stomach cancer causes more deaths than motor accidents by a ratio of more than two to one. Yet most people believe motor accidents cause more deaths. The news media are more likely to carry vivid accounts of motor accidents. Hence, we tend to overweight the incidence of motor accidents.
Rudolf Hausner, 1976, Adam objektiv, Novopanplatte mit Papier beklebt, Acryl, Harz?lfarben
For much of our evolution we have developed a range of cognitive mechanisms to cope with adverse environments in which resources are scarce. These include a range of simplifying and confidence-sustaining mental short cuts (heuristics) that help us to make quick decisions when pausing to undertake a full analysis would be unwise (Gigerenzer et al., 1999). However, these evolved modes of thinking also create some major traps:
- Framing the problem
- Medical decisions can be affected by whether outcomes are framed as likelihood of deaths or of saving patients.
- Using information
- First, we pay more attention to information that is easily available (availability heuristic).
- Second, we overweight memories which are more easily retrievable – usually because they are emotionally vivid or have personal relevance (retrievability heuristic).
- Problems of judgement
- From birth, we start learning to filter information out and to prioritise, label and classify the phenomena we observe. This is a vital process. Without it we literally could not function in our day-to-day lives.
- Many decisions need revisiting and updating as new information becomes available. However, most of us make insufficient anchoring adjustment: this is the tendency to fail to update one’s targets as the environment changes (Rutledge, 1993).
- Post-decision evaluation
- A common way in which we distort our understanding of events is to assume we have greater control of events than we really do. When we suffer from this illusion of control, we are likely to underestimate the risks of our actions and decisions and have problems in learning from experience as we discount information that suggests we are not in control (Fenton-O’Creevy et al., 2003).
While some risks can be quantified, many are unknown. In the face of such uncertainty our approach to risk depends on fundamental assumptions about the way the world works. Different social groups have different approaches to uncertainty. Schwarz and Thompson (1990) characterise these in terms of what they describe as four myths of nature. Adams (1995) has conceptualised them in terms of a ball on a surface. Imagine a ball on a surface. A small push on the ball has different effects depending on the shape of the surface.
Those subscribing to the myth of nature as capricious see the world as essentially unpredictable. A small action could have entirely unpredictable consequences of unknown scale. Those who see nature as benign believe strongly in equilibrium. However strong the disturbance to the world, the status quo tends to be restored. Those who subscribe to the perverse/tolerant myth believe that, within limits, the world is predictable and tolerant of shocks to the system. However, pushing beyond those limits risks catastrophe. Those who see nature as ephemeral take a profoundly pessimistic view. Even small disturbances can lead to profound and potentially catastrophic changes. The world is fragile and precarious, and equilibrium can be overturned by even small actions.
For example, the different stances taken by different groups over climate change can be understood in these terms. Combined with some of the traps mentioned above, we can imagine why the topic is so hotly debated and with so little intelligence. Instead of taking heuristic shortcusts like the media, we should allow ourselves to consider more creative and effective soloutions, like birth control or new approaches to carbon-?neutral fuels. Actions against climate change need to be enforceable by reason and law – there is little point in blaming each other.