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David Ropeik

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Risky Today, Gone Tomorrow? Where Do Our Fears Go When the Oil Stops Leaking?

Posted: 07/13/10 04:33 PM ET

Sooner or later, the leak will stop and we'll move on. It always happens, faster and faster in these days when information spews more furiously than oil from an uncapped well. The 24/7 Scream-a-Thon news media focus our attention on the risk du jour, but only for a short while. Then it's on to the next one. Don't blame the media though. It is human nature that the threat staring us in the face at the moment just doesn't feel as threatening when it doesn't threaten us in the moment anymore.

It makes sense to worry most about what threatens you now, but it's a lousy way to assess the risks we really face. Forgetting the mess that catastrophic offshore oil well failures had caused (Santa Barbara 1969 , Ixtoc 1979 ) contributed to the relaxed government oversight which facilitated the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Forgetting what epidemics of diseases like polio and small pox and even measles can do is feeding the growing fear of vaccines, to the point where some diseases are making a comeback.

We're not really good at paying attention to risks that loom in the future either. Concern about climate change may be broad, but it's thin. Few people are worried enough to actually do the things we all need to do to, or to push politicians for the policies we need, to reduce the unsustainable way we're messing up the climate. Maybe you've heard that we are running out of antibiotics because germs, in response to our overuse of these drugs, have evolved defenses that make the drugs ineffective. How worried are you about antibiotic resistance? I mean, there are some drugs that still work, right? So it's not a problem. Now. Phew!

Threats now feel scarier than threats before, or threats later. We're psychologically programmed this way, and it makes sense. We don't have to worry anymore about what we already survived, and surviving...getting to tomorrow...means paying closer attention to the perils of the day than what lies down the road because, after all, we've got to get down the road first. Better pay attention to traffic at the moment than traffic around the next corner, right?

Academics call this The Availability Heuristic...the information processing shortcut built into our brains that causes us to focus on, and put more weight on, things that come to mind more quickly or are currently staring us in the face. The problem is that this sort of near-sightedness can be risky in and of itself. Just ask the people affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, or victims of resurgent vaccine-preventable diseases. And imagine what future generations would say about our risk assessment when they are adapting to dramatically changed weather, higher sea level, and the return of formerly treatable infectious bacterial diseases.

This is one facet of what, in "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts," I call The Perception Gap, the gap between our fears and the facts that raises new risks all by itself. Risk is subjective. It's not just a cold unbiased analysis of the facts, but a subjective gut reaction to how those facts feel. We know, from studying risk perception psychology, why some risks feel scarier than others, and why we sometimes worry too much about smaller risks and not enough about the bigger ones. The Availability Heuristic is one of many reasons why we sometimes get risk wrong. The literature on the psychology of risk perception is rich, and a powerful potential guide to health and safety.

We live longer lives than humans ever have, thanks to cleaner food and water, and drugs, and medicine, and seat belts and air bags and all sorts of modern protections. Wouldn't it be wise to also use what we've learned about the psychology of risk perception as another of these tools, so we can add our knowledge about the causes of The Perception Gap to the choices we make about how to stay safe, as individuals, and as a society? Shouldn't realizing why our feelings sometimes cause us to get risk wrong, be a good first step toward improving our ability to read risk right?

 
 
 

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