Risk has been a topic of considerable debate among academics, policy makers, and members of the general public for several decades. Though what constitutes risk often differs between individuals, B. John Garrick has stated that a definition of risk should include the following three questions:
- What can happen?
- How likely is it that the outcome(s) will occur?
- What are the resulting consequences, if any?
Also included in most definitions of risk are terms such as riskiness, utility, value, trust, vulnerability, danger, and even threat. Although many definitions of risk inherently imply the probability of a negative outcome, this is not always the case. Certain activities, events, and phenomena, though “risky,” have the potential to produce beneficial results.
Examples of risk can include, but are not limited to, outcomes resulting from events over which one has, hypothetically, more control, such as gambling, and/or outcomes resulting from less controllable events, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, nuclear power plant construction, and criminal activity. This multifaceted concept has been researched across a wide domain of academic disciplines including business and economics, environmental health, public health, education, law, and even criminal justice. Results from this extensive line of research have provided insight regarding how human beings differentially interpret, perceive, and react to risks; how cognitive differences between people influence such varied assessments and behaviors; whether risk reduction/management techniques are effective, especially in terms of their predictive capabilities; and the strategies and techniques adopted by risk experts and governmental agencies in their attempts to quantify and control potentially catastrophic risks. All of this information has also been used to better understand how the concept of risk in general governs politics and society.
Nearly every decision a human being makes, whether it is choosing between a host of food options, driving to work, selecting a vacation destination, or even selecting a spouse, implies some element of risk. It is not so much that the choices or selections themselves are risks; rather, they pose or cause potential risks, given the inherent uncertainty involved with each. Ultimately, given how people cannot predict the future or the resulting outcome, people are sometimes placed in a position to make a decision that in the end invites risk.
Dating back to the origins of human civilization, even members of ancient societies such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made assessments of various options that were predicated upon risk, for example, whether to engage in wars or conquer certain lands. More contemporary examples of risk-based assessments include selecting a particular candidate for political office, proliferating chemical and nuclear technologies, and deciding to invest in various stock options. Again, because risk implies uncertainty, it is not the candidates or stocks themselves that are risks, but are instead the causes of risk because people cannot foresee the potential outcomes they can engender. Given that human beings are naturally inclined to engage in protective measures that will minimize the threat of adverse outcomes, this implies intuitive decision-making processes that are geared toward reducing the uncertainty involved in people’s choices. Only until recently have members of the scientific community investigated how humans make risk-based decisions, and how these decision-making processes affect the wider society, both politically and socially.
Risk-Based Scientific Literature
Beginning roughly with the pioneering work of Chauncey Starr and continuing with the findings from a host of studies by Paul Slovic and associates, the topic of risk has been researched from a variety of different standpoints. The “revealed preference” approach to risk assumes that, by a rational trial-and-error process, society arrives at an essentially optimum balance between the risks and benefits associated with any activity. However, this approach has been criticized for its lack of attention to the fact that human beings differ in terms of what they perceive to be risks, and that these differences are attributed to a variety of factors. The revealed preference approach has also been criticized for its failure to account for the fact that humans are not always rational in their decision making. As a result, further research has found that both members of the lay public and even experts engaging in qualitative and quantitative risk-based assessments apply their own subjective interpretations as to what constitutes a risk.
Human beings desire to make sense of a world that is frequently chaotic and complex, yet in order to do so they simplify phenomena that surround us via cognitive processes, which sometimes can produce bias in comprehension of events. For example, several studies have noted that selective viewership and attention to certain information outlets dictates people’s perceptions of the world, including risks. Our selection of news sources, the individuals with whom one associates, the books and magazines one chooses to read each shape how a person views things, which in turn, have the ability to influence subsequent behavior.
Furthermore, not only does the source of information prove significant in framing their understanding, but also the way in which the information is presented and disseminated affects their comprehension. As an illustration, if news consumers are told that one incoming hurricane will most likely take the lives of roughly 30 people, yet cause over $1 billion in property damage, and that another hurricane will cost 400 lives and only $500,000 worth of damage, those who value life over property are more likely to view the second scenario as “more risky,” given its increased potential for deadly outcomes. In both instances, the risk of the hurricane causing damage is a possibility, yet the extent and degree of that risk is contingent upon subjective assessments, and the manner in which the information is presented is vital in shaping such assessments. In this example, individuals are presented with different pieces of information regarding a potential hazard, and as a result will form their own opinions and make their own decisions accordingly.
Other factors found to be associated with human risk perceptions are direct and vicarious experiences. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation publishes its annual Uniform Crime Reports, in which data are quantified to provide an illustration of the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime, people will sometimes rely more on their personal experiences to determine the level of risk associated with victimization. If a person was victimized or knows of one who suffered the same fate, even in light of expert-based information pointing to the contrary, people will perhaps perceive the risk of victimization as far greater than what the data suggest. Finally, additional studies on risk have also found that other characteristics aside from the probability of an outcome multiplied by its potential for damage qualify as important considerations when determining what a risk is. People’s level of vulnerability to a specific event, their knowledge of it, the degree of control they think they have over it, and even the level of dread attached to the event are all important factors researchers have found to be considered by human beings when assessing and perceiving risks.
Individuals or experts involved in risk-based assessments, though they may rely on more scientific knowledge to make their own judgments, are also subject to the same “cognitive limitations” as lay persons. Returning to the example of criminal victimization, the experts who quantify and assess the risk of criminal activity rely on information produced from various sources, which frequently suffers its own deficiencies. That same information may be outdated, may not account for population variations and may have been calculated using incorrect formulae. As a consequence, whatever assessments and predictions that result may be misleading and biased. Even within the field of meteorology, errors can be made regarding the risk posed by a severe weather event. It has been noted that when the public gains knowledge of the errors committed by individuals who are viewed as risk assessment experts, their level of trust and confidence in such institutions declines as a result.
This often leads to friction between both parties given the sometimes strongly held beliefs held by either side. For instance, even though experts within the field of nuclear energy stress the benefits of this activity, while also downplaying any associated risks, events such as the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdowns have cast such a negative light on the proliferation of nuclear technology that many people disregard or altogether disbelieve any opinions voiced by members of the nuclear technology community. Again, such lack of trust and differences of opinion have the potential to create friction between sides.
Risk and Its Effects on Society and Politics
Not only has the topic of risk been studied from a perception and meaning standpoint, but the implications of and decisions concerning certain risks have also been afforded considerable attention. Whereas it was originally thought that members of higher social classes, given their resources and knowledge, were less susceptible to the risks of everyday life, the proliferation of technology, the advent and expansion of globalization, as well as political tensions—each risk factors in and of themselves—represent dangers to nearly every member of the wider global community. The very decisions made by certain members of society, such as whether to purchase nuclear arms or pollute the atmosphere, have now contributed to collective risks for all.
This is the underlying assumption of “systems theory,” which sees society observing itself in terms of risky decisions and how those decisions govern human behavior. Additionally, the advent of other social changes, such as the increase in single-parent homes, AIDS, and cybercrime, have all initiated a collective movement by the wider public to engage in practices to minimize the risk(s) associated with these factors. Sometimes, however, these risks are used by the more powerful members of society to socially stratify certain segments of the population.
From a “governmentality” perspective, risk and associated decision making are viewed as part of a wider body of operations used to control the population. Politicians, judges, criminal justice officials, and other individuals with the power to influence outcomes, employ “actuarial” risk-assessment strategies to understand, on an aggregate level, who and what poses the most risk. Actuarial assessments do not necessarily consider the underlying motivations or individual characteristics of those individuals most likely to pose a risk; instead, they are more concerned with altering the physical environment within which dangers can be exposed.
Traffic lights and convenience store cameras, legal statutes, speed limits, prisoner classification systems, college admissions decisions, credit card approvals, and insurance premiums are all actuarially based risk management tactics. Each is based on an evaluation of population characteristics and used to control or even modify the behavior of the public. These strategies also operate to regulate access to various commodities such as a college education, a bank loan, or even store-bought products, while also serving to structure relations between those with the ability to influence such decisions and those who must abide by them. In the end, risk is perceived as an instrument of social regulation.
- Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage, 1992.
- Curran, Dean. “Risk Society and the Distribution of Bads: Theorizing Class in the Risk Society.” British Journal of Sociology, v.64/1 (2013).
- Garrick, B. John. Quantifying and Controlling Catastrophic Risks. New York: Elsevier Publications, 2008.
- O’Malley, Pat. Crime and the Risk Society. Brookfield, UK: Ashgate, 1998.
- Slovic, Paul. “Perception of Risk.” Science, v.236 (1987).
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