The Science and Politics of Fear

I have just finished reading Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner.  It is a good read and I would recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in how perceptions of risk work.

The Psychology of Risk

DanielKahnemanThe book starts with a fairly detailed discussion of the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  They worked together to understand the biases that we are prone to when we assess risk.  These arise through the quick judgements we make, based on mental rules of thumb.

left, Daniel Kahneman

right, Amos TverskyAmosTversky

When we understand these, we understand something of our response to risk.  This work was so important that Kahneman became the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics who was not an economist.  Tversky had sadly died in 1996, six years before the prize was awarded.

PaulSlovic2left, Paul Slovic

Gardner also considers a fourth bias that has been investigated by Paul Slovic, of Oregon University.  For project managers and list collectors, however, the highlight may be Slovic’s list of eighteen characteristics that boost people’s perception of risk.

The Four Biases

Gardner comes up with some catchy names for these biases, but for the first, he keeps Tversky and Kahneman’s name, “The Anchoring Bias”.  This predisposes us to make inferences based on some earlier information we get – even if that information has little or no relevance.

Bias number two is the “Representativeness Bias”. Gardner calls this the rule of typical things in which we think things are more likely, if the seem to fit a “typical” pattern.

Bias number three is the “Availability Bias”, which Gardener calls the example rule.  Recent events bias our perception of risk, because they are more available to our intuition than counter examples.

Bias number four derives from Slovic’s work.  This is the “Affect Bias”, which predisposes us to think things that are bad are also more likely than they really are.

More Biases

Gardner’s book is full of other perceptual biases that make it essential reading if you want an introduction to the psychology of risk.

… and the Politics bit?

The second half of the book (actually the greater part) deals with how the media and advertisers feed off these biases deliberately to sell newspapers and create fear that makes us buy security products, for example.

This part is fascinating reading if you want to understand the how businesses and politicians can manipulate us, and how the media becomes complicit – not just cynically, but because the journalists that fill it with copy are as prone to these biases as we are.

If I had to be critical, there are perhaps a few too many examples given in these latter chapters, but they do not detract to an excellent introduction to the science and politics of our perceptions of risk.

The “so what?”

Buy Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner; read it; internalise its messages; don’t ever trust your evaluation of the likelihood of risk again.

You may also like the following blogs:

The Problems of Probability
… discusses four biases and the problem of estimating risk likelihoods

So what are you “doing” about risk?
… discusses the importance of taking action after you have analysed your risk

I can also recommend Glen Alleman’s excellent blog Herding Cats, and, in particular, Sources of Estimating Errors, in which he discusses how these biases affect our estimates.


One thought on “The Science and Politics of Fear

  1. John C Goodpasture

    A good post on the human dimension, and compliments nicely the post on “the problems of probability”

    You should take a look at new book now on the shelves called “The Irrational Economist: Making decisions in a dangerous world”. The first few essays in this book address various aspects of utility that make risk assessments and decision-making not only non-linear but irrational, inexplicably. Also, Ron Suskind’s book “One percent doctrine” on the utility of “0” X “Infinity” = certainty is worth a look.


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