The Politics of Risk Perception

October 2008 Issue

by Diana Del Bel Belluz, M.A.Sc., P.Eng.

Have you ever assessed a risk only to have the results dismissed by a senior executive with the question “But what is the real risk? It’s frustrating to hit a total disconnect between reason and politics.In his 2008 book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear,Journalist Dan Gardnerexplores the psychology of risk perception that produces that kind of disconnect.

Gardner’s book synthesizes four decades of scientific research into how humans perceive risks, how we judge which risks to fear and which to ignore, and how we decide what to do about them. One of the key discoveries is that every human brain has two systems of thought.

  • System Two is Reason or the head. It works slowly. It examines evidence, it calculates and considers.
  • System One is Feeling or the gut. It works without our conscious awareness and is lightening fast. It is what is used in snap judgments that we experience as a hunch or an intuition or as emotions like unease, worry and fear [or conversely, enthusiasm and excitement]. It works quickly because it uses built-in rules of thumb and automatic settings.

He concludes “System One is both brilliant and flawed. It is brilliant because the simple rules of thumb System One uses allow it to assess a situation and render a judgment in an instant… But System One is also flawed because the same rules of thumb can generate irrational conclusions.”

This flaw is a good reason to cultivate a risk conscience as I advise in this month’s Feature Article on dealing with political resistance.

Gardner’s book explores three factors that influence our perceptions: the media that amplifies fear; fear marketers, i.e., individuals in organizations that profit from fear; and psychology which is the most important factor.

The book is filled with examples and stories that make it a great read and explain the science beautifully. Gardner makes a compelling case to apply what is known about how our two minds work. Critical thinking is the only way to empower us to make the most of what both our gut and our head are telling us while avoiding the traps of bias and prejudice.

To find out more:

  • Watch Dan Gardner discuss his book in a 4-minute interview on the CBS Early Showhere.
  • And listen to a 51-minute interview with Dan Gardner about his book on National Public Radio here

Follow the links to:

  • Read this month's Feature Article - Overcoming Resistance Part 3 - Breaking Through The Political Barriers
  • Download a printable version of the entire April 2011 issue of the Risk Management Made Simple Advisory.
  • View the Article Index to access back issues of the Risk Management Made Simple Advisory.

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Diana's Pick

The Neuroscience of Enterprise Risk Management (written by Diana Del Bel Belluz of Risk Wise) expores findings from the field of neuroscience and shares practical tips on how to apply them to enhance individuals' risk management thinking and implement brain-friendly ERM practices in organizations.

The article was published by The Conference Board of Canada in the Autumn 2017 issue of the journal Risk Watch.