A crash course in risk perception
Interested in becoming an expert on the intriguing subject of risk perception?
Here’s a quick way to get started: go for a walk, during the breaks between classes, on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.
Picture the scene on the first day of school. The number of young people on campus has made a dramatic surge upward. As usual, I find that the promise of direct, in-person encounters with students adds exhilaration and even joy to the day. There is, however, much less joy and exhilaration in the promise of direct, in-person encounters with bicyclists and skateboarders.
At the peak of migration from one class to the next, as these youth-in-a-hurry race through the world, pedestrians turn into posts on a slalom race or perhaps the ninepins lined up in a bowling alley.
The campus is expansive, and the distance to be covered, in a trek from a history class to an engineering class, is substantial. Students may well feel compelled to leap on a wheeled vehicle and proceed in haste to the next classroom.
Still, the scene on campus does not convey the mood of a procession of earnest young seekers of knowledge trying not to miss a moment of their instructors’ company. On the contrary: The pedestrian has moments of wondering if the wheeled have taken up a vendetta against the footed.
Watching a series of near-misses in the crowds ahead of me, I follow the rituals of reassurance that are the customs of my people. In the manner of many an intellectual before me, I seek refuge from dread and terror by thinking of books and articles I have been reading.
In recent weeks, trying to deepen my understanding of the intense controversies over hydraulic fracturing, I have been consulting the work of experts on risk perception. While risk can and often does come associated with real hazard, these experts tell us, the perception of risk is also very much shaped by feelings and by subjectivity.
This leads to a crucial question: Did we choose to subject ourselves to a particular risk, or was it forced upon us? If our exposure to a risk is involuntary, studies declare, our worry increases proportionately. Thus, the population navigating the campus walkways divides itself into two psychologically distinct groups: the bicyclists and skateboarders, who have chosen risk; and the pedestrians, who have headed out onto the campus without the slightest desire to expose themselves to risk.
Validating the assertions of the experts, the group that chooses risk seem to be having a different, and much more pleasant, experience than the group that has risk forced upon them.
Could there be a purpose behind this wild scene? Might social psychologists be stationed around campus, engaged in a massive research project, recording this nerve-wracking but entrancing ballet?
When a bicyclist swoops from behind, clearing my shoulder by an inch, or when a skateboarder makes a last-minute swerve to leave my ankle unbroken, perhaps my tremors are contributing important data to research and scholarship on the role of subjectivity in how we experience risk.
If so, this study will join others in exploring a crucial, but difficult question: How do people, presented with an abundant collection of hazards to worry about, select a risk or two for special agitation?
As I nervously edge my way across the campus, I can’t miss the fact that the bicyclists and the skateboarders may be doing me a favor. Was I worrying about other risks before I started my walk? The escalation of American involvement in the Middle East?
As a rattled pedestrian, my concerns narrow down to one risk, and thus to one clear hope: Let me avoid an unexpected visit with the orthopedic surgeons and arrive — both at peace and in one piece — at my office.
From the perspective of an aspiring expert in risk perception, I may owe the campus speed demons a “thank you” for giving me clarity in a confusing time.