So how, in a democracy, is government supposed to deal with the risk of risk perception? How do we square the subjective way we perceive risk as individuals with the social and governmental goal of rationally using our communal resources in ways that will do the most good?
Here’s a suggestion: We need to recognize that, just as there are physical risks that we study and try to manage, there are very real risks from the perception gap that also need to be recognized, studied and accounted for in policymaking. Getting risk wrong is risky.
We use tools such as toxicology and epidemiology and economics to identify and analyze how to deal with those physical threats. We should also use neuroscience and psychology and sociology and economics to recognize the dangers posed by our misperceptions and to analyze those threats the same way we analyze and manage any others.
That can help us handle the gap between the facts and our feelings about the facts.
David Ropeik is an instructor in the Harvard Extension Program, a consultant on risk perception and risk management, and author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Go with The Facts.”