In his pioneering 1969 risk analysis, Chauncey Starr – at the time dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of California, Los Angeles – pointed out the major difference in risk tolerance between voluntary and involuntary activities. . When people believe they are in control (a perception that may be incorrect but is based on past experiences and therefore the belief that they can assess the likely outcome), they engage in activities – climbing vertical rock faces without ropes, skydiving, bullfighting – the risk of serious injury or death of which can be a thousand times higher than the risk associated with involuntary exposure as dreaded as a terrorist attack in a major Western city.
And most people have no problem engaging daily and repeatedly in activities that temporarily increase their risk by significant margins: hundreds of millions of people drive every day (and many apparently enjoy doing so), and an even higher risk is tolerated by an even greater number of people. number of smokers – in rich countries, decades of education have reduced their ranks, but in the world they are still more than a billion.
In some cases, this disparity between tolerating voluntary risks and trying to avoid the misperceived risks of involuntary exposures gets really bizarre, as people refuse to have their children vaccinated (voluntarily exposing them to multiple preventable disease risks) because that they view government demands to protect their children (an unintended imposition) as unacceptably risky – and have done so on the basis of repeatedly discredited “evidence” (notably linking vaccination to a higher incidence of autism) or rumors of danger (the implantation of microchips!).
And the SARSCoV-2 pandemic has elevated those irrational fears to a new level. Humanity’s best hope for ending the pandemic was widespread vaccination, but long before the first vaccines were approved for distribution, large parts of the population were telling pollsters they would not be vaccinated. .
Feelings of dread play an outsized role in risk perception.
The widespread fear of nuclear power generation is another prime example of misperception of risk. Many people smoke, drive and eat excessively, but have reservations about living next to a nuclear power plant, and polls have shown enduring and widespread mistrust of this form of nuclear power generation. electricity, despite the fact that it has prevented a large number of deaths linked to air pollution. this would have been associated with the combustion of fossil fuels (in 2020, almost three-fifths of the world’s electricity came from fossil fuels and only 10% from nuclear fission).
And the comparison between the overall risks of nuclear and fossil power generation does not reverse even when the best estimates of all latent fatalities from the two major accidents (Chornobyl in 1985 and Fukushima in 2011) are included.
Perhaps the most astonishing contrast in nuclear risk perceptions is seen when comparing France and Germany. France has derived more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear fission since the 1980s and nearly 60 reactors dot the country’s landscape, cooled by water from many French rivers, including the Seine, the Rhine, the Garonne and the Loire. Yet the longevity of the French population (just behind Spain within the EU) is the best testimony to the fact that these nuclear power plants have not been a noticeable source of health problems or premature deaths – but besides -Rhine, it is not only the German Greens who believe that nuclear power is an infernal invention that must be eliminated as soon as possible, but also much broader sections of society.
This is why many researchers have argued that there is no “objective risk” waiting to be measured, as our perceptions of risk are inherently subjective, dependent on our understanding of specific hazards (familiar or new hazards). and cultural circumstances. Their psychometric studies showed that specific hazards have their unique patterns of highly correlated qualities: unintended risks are often associated with fear of new, uncontrollable, and unknown hazards; intentional hazards are more likely to be perceived as controllable and known to science. Nuclear power generation is widely perceived as dangerous, X-rays as quite risky.
Fatalistic people underestimate the risks in order to avoid the effort required to analyze them and draw practical conclusions.
Feelings of dread play an outsized role in risk perception. Terrorist attacks are perhaps the best example of this differentiated tolerance, as fear takes over and drives out rational assessment easily based on irrefutable evidence. Due to their unpredictable timing, location, and scale, terrorist attacks rank high on the psychometric scale of terror, and these fears have been intensively exploited by vastly exaggerated pseudo-analyses offered by talking heads. on 24/7 news channels: For the past two decades, they’ve speculated about everything from the suitcase-sized nuclear bombs that exploded in the middle of Manhattan to the poisoning reservoirs used to supply drinking water to major cities and the spraying of deadly viruses.
Compared to these dreaded attacks, driving presents largely voluntary, highly recurring and very familiar risks, and accidental fatalities overwhelmingly (more than 90% of cases) involve a single person per fatal collision. As a result, societies tolerate a global death toll of more than 1.2 million deaths per year, which they would never accept if it were to take the form of recurring accidents in industrial installations or structural collapses ( bridges, buildings) in or near major cities, even though the combined annual death toll from these disasters was an order of magnitude lower – “just” in the hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The wide differences in individual risk tolerance are best illustrated by the fact that many individuals engage – voluntarily and repeatedly – in activities that others might view not only as too risky but too clearly falling into the category of the desire for death. Base jumping (fixed object) is an excellent example of such an activity, because the slightest delay in opening the parachute can cost life – a body in free fall reaches a fatal speed in a few seconds. And then there is risk tolerance justified by fatalistic beliefs: illnesses or accidents are predestined and inevitable, and it is therefore foolish to try to improve one’s health or prevent accidents by appropriate personal action.
Fatalistic people also underestimate risks in order to avoid the effort required to analyze them and draw practical conclusions, and because they feel totally unable to deal with them. Road fatalism has been particularly well studied. Fatalistic drivers underestimate dangerous driving situations, are less likely to practice defensive driving (no distractions, keep a safe distance, no speeding) and are less likely to hold their children back with seat belts or to report their involvement in road accidents. Worryingly, studies in some countries have found traffic fatalism to be widespread among taxi drivers and pervasive among minibus drivers.
There is little we can do to convert base jumpers into paragons of risk aversion or to convince many taxi drivers that their accidents are not predetermined. But we can use the best available understanding of risks, both those in everyday life and those that are extremely rare but life-threatening, to quantify their consequences and therefore compare their impacts. It is not an easy task, as we have to deal with such a variety of events and processes. Moreover, there is no perfect metric for doing so, and there can be no universal yardstick for comparing the pervasive risks that billions of people face daily with the extraordinarily rare events that can occur once out of a hundred, a thousand or even ten. thousand years, but with catastrophic global consequences.
Extract of How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going by Vaclav Smil, published by Viking.