Monday, April 11, 2011

Perception and Deception

Chances are good that David Ropeik knows what you’re afraid of. A risk perception consultant, previous instructor of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of two books on the topic, Ropeik is well attuned to human fears and certainly knows risk.

The rest of us, however, tend to get risk all wrong. We fear things that come with little actual risk, and at the same time, we are less afraid of more probable harm. For instance, people tend to worry about nuclear power more than fossil fuels, cancer more than heart disease, and vaccines more than coming down with the diseases they prevent. But in each of these cases, the thing we fear less

This phenomenon is what Ropeik dubs the “Perception Gap.” He will be presenting a talk on it at the Festival on May 2, emphasizing how understanding this gap can help us make better judgments.
Ropeik got interested in risk through a background in television journalism. “My reporting covered so many stories where people’s fears didn’t seem to match the evidence,” he recalls.

Early in Ropeik’s career, concerns about air quality arose at Cambridge High School. Teachers were concerned that the indoor air at the school was contaminated, and was causing brain tumors. Even though there was little evidence to link illness to the air, members of the community latched onto the fear. “There are frequently situations like this where people start to put two and two together, and get five,” he says.

Making judgments is tough because we rarely have all the facts in front of us. “We have developed a suite of mental shortcuts that help us to quickly assess partial information and turn it into judgment,” Ropeik explains. These instincts have evolved from early humans. For instance, we are well adapted to recognize patterns, but sometimes we’re tempted to connect the dots and form links that don’t exist in reality.

The problem with making judgments that don’t match the evidence is that it can be dangerous. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a newfound fear of flying made many more people hit the road in cars. But statistically, traveling by car is more dangerous than flying. “Death tolls on American highways rose significantly in those first 3 months [after 9/11],” Ropeik relates. “Some of them died because of the Perception Gap.”

Often, our individual fears grow into social policy. This becomes problematic when our fears misidentify what’s truly dangerous. “Our fear of nuclear power has contributed to an energy policy that favors burning coal for electricity,” Ropeik notes. “Coal kills far more of us from particle pollution, but nuclear radiation has characteristics that make it scary.”

Fear and worry put stress on our systems. Our blood pressure rises, our immune systems are suppressed, and things like fertility and memory are compromised when this stress becomes chronic. We’re also more likely to fall into clinical depression.

With excess worry taking its toll on our health, it can become even more dangerous to fear the wrong things. Ropeik suggests the solution lies in awareness: “Understanding why the Perception Gap exists is the first step toward narrowing the gap.”

Come take that step and learn more and at “Perception Gap - Risk, Fear and You!” on Monday, May 2 at 6:30pm at the Cambridge Public Library.

See more from David Ropeik at Psychology Today: Why the Jubilation in Egypt Resonates Universally.

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