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The Year of Fear in Review: What Does It Teach Us About Risk Perception?

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It's been a scary year, hasn't it? Sticking Toyota accelerators and gushing oil wells and somebody trying to blow something up every few weeks. Scary chemicals, contaminated eggs, screwy severe weather. Lord, it's enough to make you think that just waking up can be downright dangerous.

But let's review a bit more carefully the risks we heard about, and the ones we didn't, so we don't turn into a bunch of Chicken Littles running around freaked out that "the sky is falling!" Turns out the Year of Fear in Review tells us a lot about how our risk perception system works, and why we're more afraid of some lesser risks, and not afraid enough of some bigger ones.

January. We were still talking about the "Underwear Bomber," a terrorist on a plane headed for Detroit last Christmas with a bomb in his shorts who tried, and fortunately failed, to ignite it. What's the risk to you or me that that will happen on any of the flights we take? Low. But the terrifying nature of dying that way makes this risk feel way more scary.

February. A massive snowstorm paralyzes Washington D.C. Conservatives gleefully declare global warming an Al Gore hoax. Environmentalists reply, reasonably, that short-term local weather events aren't the same as long term global changes to the climate, and then point to the warm temperatures and lack of snow -- the weather -- at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver as proof that global warming is real. This is fabulous evidence that, like our positions on many things, the risk-perception "debate" over the facts of climate change between the True Believers and the Doubter/Deniers is really a reflection of the underlying influence of social and group pressures on the positions we take. (See Cultural Cognition for much more on this. Important, and fascinating.)

March. Toyota is reeling from reports that accelerators in some models may stick, causing fatal crashes. They recall millions of vehicles, but the press reports that the company knew about the defect and fought the recalls for years, celebrating when they successfully fended off a recall that might have saved some lives. In the end, only a few dozen deaths resulted out of hundreds of thousands of Lexus drivers, but the fear, fueled largely by a lack of trust, cost the company billions.

April. Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano belches fine grit and ash, and air traffic in western Europe is grounded. For the first few days, stranded tourists are reassured by the precaution, but as their money and patience wear out, the perception of the risk starts to change. The danger looks smaller and the benefit of getting out of costly hotels or skanky airport lounges, and back home, outweighs the fear.

May. BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill gushes on. People are outraged by the catastrophe. There is little mention of the Dead Zone that suffocates 100 square miles of the same part of the Gulf of Mexico annually from chronic fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi, because chronic risk just doesn't worry us as much. Environmentalists decry the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil, which, while just as toxic as the oil, reduce the overall risk by breaking up the smothering blanket of the solid oil slick. But that benefit gets little note because "chemicals" evoke an automatic negative response, and we're loss-averse anyway, so in most tradeoffs, the risk carries more emotional weight than the benefit.

June. San Francisco once again demonstrates that fear, as much as or more than fact, drives our judgments about risk, voting to require cell phone packages to prominently display the radiation each phone emits, even after learning that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that radiation from cell phones has "no adverse health consequence." The office of Mayor Gavin Newsom admits that the policy is about fear, not actual risk, saying, "This is not to tell anyone to stop using their cell phones," adding, "We think that for the consumer for whom this is an area of concern, it ought to be easier to find" information on radiation emissions from cell phones. In other words, the policy isn't about the possibility of danger. It's about the worry.

July. A California state legislator proposes banning serpentine as the state rock because it contains asbestos. Never mind that you'd have to find the rock, grind it up into a fine powder and inhale it before it could pose any risk. The way our fear memory works, things we've heard of that are scary (asbestos) stay scary, the facts and plain common sense notwithstanding.

August. Put down those eggs! An outbreak of salmonella that sickens a few thousand people is traced back to a huge egg farm in Iowa, and nearly half a billion eggs are recalled. (See also listeria/contaminated produce in October, salmonella in salami in the spring, and recalls of cheese and dairy, ground beef, lettuce and lobster meat spread across the year.) Just a couple of days ago, the CDC reported new data that 48 million Americans, or one in six, suffer food poisoning per year. Of those, 3,000 a year will die. The risk of food-borne illness in America is huge, but we only hear about it sporadically, when there is an outbreak, and we're more afraid of lesser risks like underwear bombers on airplanes, because catastrophic all-at-once out-of-the-ordinary threats frighten us more than chronic risks (spread out over time) with which we're familiar.

September. The FDA holds two days of hearings on transgenic salmon. Day One is about safety. The fish are created by combining genes from two species of salmon, making the hybrid grow faster. It requires less food and produces less waste, plus the faster-growing hybrids can't mess things up in nature if they escape, because they're sterile, sustainable aquaculture and safe. But the agency has to hold a second day of hearings on demands that the fish be labeled as genetically altered, because some people fear human-made risks more than natural ones, and this fish has genes from two species of salmon joined in a test tube, not in the wild. Why do fearful people want labels? Labeling provides choice, and choice makes any risk feel less risky.

October. The European Food Safety Agency says a review of the latest studies of bisphenol A (BPA) suggest that the low-dose exposures we get are safe. A few weeks later, based on the same science, the Canadians ban BPA as a toxin. A few weeks later the World Health Organization says such bans are not supported by the evidence. And a few weeks later another branch of the European government ignores what their own food safety agency found and bans BPA from baby bottles. How's that one for a risk issue where our fears, as well as the facts, play a role in our decision-making?

November. Flying anywhere? You can be examined by an x-ray device that can see through your clothes (the "back-scatter" device actually exposes you to less radiation than standard scanners), or you can opt out and have a pat down so thorough that, after it's over, the agent doesn't have to ask whether that's a pistol in your pocket or you're just glad to see her. Radiation worries people because it's invisible and is associated with cancer (high pain and suffering leads to high fear), and the pat downs don't feel like much of an alternative, so the whole thing feels imposed, and imposed risk upsets us more than risk we take voluntarily.

December. A bomber tries, and fails, to blow up a crowd at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Ore. We learn that the U.S. government is preparing to help America recover after the detonation of a nuclear bomb on American soil. Tourists are being shredded by sharks off the shores of Sharm al Sheik. Police in the Pacific Northwest find the tenth severed foot-in-a-shoe washed up on shore in the last few years. Any of those risks likely to happen to you? Probably not. Scary though, eh? When it comes to risk perception, the odds, and the science, and the facts, are only part of the story.

There will be plenty to worry about next year. And we'll survive most of those risks, too.