No. 26




Risk: Construction and Coping

19 December 2012


RiTo No. 26, 2012

  • Kati Orru

    Kati Orru

    Research Fellow of Environmental Sociology, Estonian University of Life Sciences

  • Mati Heidmets

    Professor of Social Psychology, Tallinn University

Major crises like nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks, food poisonings or even banking crises have provoked large-scale societal responses in Europe and world-wide. This article discusses the key explanations for public responses to risks, and the ways in which understanding of risks shapes individual and state-level decision-making.

The likelihood of the occurrence of adverse events and the magnitude of their effects are measured with precise methodologies, be it for quantifying the risks of flooding, polluting of drinking water or other. The societal responses to risks do not often follow these risk assessments, though. For example, people tend to overestimate the risks of microbiological poisonings or flooding, whereas they underestimate the effects of every-day accidents, diabetes or cardio-vascular diseases.

There are some key explanations for how people perceive risks and act upon them. Primarily, people find it easier to tolerate risks the generation of which they understand. For example, the uncertainty that surrounds technological processes like nanotechnology and its environmental and health impacts is discouraging. Nevertheless, the level of education and knowledge about particular risks does not directly determine public reactions. Instead, people’s decisions are greatly affected by the emotions associated with a risk. The more negative associations a hazard provokes, the more feared it is. The events with great catastrophic potential that threaten a great number of people and are out of the control of affected persons (e.g. nuclear accidents) are the most dreaded. By contrast, risks that offer pleasure and seem to be under the risk-taker’s control (e.g. smoking or downhill skiing) are easily tolerated. Furthermore, risks are underestimated when the activities are associated with financial gains (e.g. working in contaminated environments) or with cultural traditions (e.g. drinking water from dug wells in agricultural areas). Another determinant of risk perception is the level of societal trust. The more trustful relationships prevail in society and between the lay public and regulators, the more secure they feel about risks to their security, health or environment. Paradoxically, trust towards state security measures decreases the readiness for individual action to protect oneself.

In democratic societies, public pressure is considered one of the important drivers of improved safety regulation. Societal attention to some risks may provoke large-scale changes in regulation (e.g. a drastic change in nuclear policies in some European countries after the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011). By contrast, societal neglect of some topics (e.g. radioactive isotopes in Estonian drinking water) may push such issues out of political agenda, even though a great number of people are affected by this health threat. Furthermore, public understanding of risks may shape the acceptance of safety regulations: e.g. higher cost of green energy, safe drinking water etc. Therefore, the awareness of the drivers of risk perception is crucial for careful consideration of public understandings of risk. Neglect of the biases affecting our risk cognition may lead to poor policy choices: e.g. stricter limitations of children’s outdoor activities after occasional playground accidents. Regulatory reaction to any public fears may end up in everlasting ‘firefighting’, instead of focusing on long-term mitigation and reduction of risks.

Full article in Estonian