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Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality

Author(s): Paul Slovic, Melissa Finucane, Ellen Peters, Donald G. MacGregor
Year Published: 2002

Risk assessment is often viewed as a logical, cause-effect process that uses mathematics and gives little credence to feelings. Without discounting the need for a rational approach to categorizing risk analysis, the authors show how affect, feelings, and emotions (the perceived “goodness” and the “badness” of a risky situation) can impact how individuals perceive and evaluate risk, and ultimately, how they decide on a particular course of action. The authors argue that it is not only what people think about an activity or technology, but how they feel about it that is also important. They call these feelings about risk the affect heuristic. Each person holds an affects pool in his/ her head that contains all of his/her positive and negative markers, and the individual consults this affects pool when making a decision. The authors support their argument in viewing the affect heuristic as a necessary component of risk analysis with a thorough reading of the literature on risk and feelings and by describing numerous empirical studies and experiments that show how the affect heuristic led to certain outcomes. Some examples described in the paper of how the affect heuristic affects decision making are drawn from finance (picking “good” stocks to invest in from “bad” ones); quitting smoking (how the enjoyment of smoking can over-ride its health risks); and toxicology (where toxicologist’s judgments about potentially dangerous chemical risks was show to be influenced by affective processes). The authors describe the difference between a possibility and a mathematical probability, how reliance on affect can be misleading, and how affect can be manipulated through advertisements and marketing. The paper’s conclusion is blunt: “We cannot assume that an intelligent person can understand the meaning of and properly act upon even the simplest numbers…or statistics pertaining to risk, unless these numbers are infused with affect”. This paper, though written for an academic audience, is very readable, and has many potential applications for understanding how feelings mesh with the risk assessments managers now use in their daily management operations.

Citation: Slovic P, Finucane M, Peters E, MacGregor DG. 2002. Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality. Risk Analysis 24 (2), p. 311-322. DOI: 10.1111/j.0272-4332.2004.00433.x
Topic(s): Risk
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 15963
Record updated: Nov 28, 2017