Researchers study how people think about what is and isn't risky

Nov 02, 2007
Researchers study how people think about what is and isn't risky
California is the most populous state in the nation with an extensive network of homes in or near highly wooded areas. It has a high number of human-caused fires and some of the most severe fire weather in the country. Still, people continue to live in areas susceptible to wildfire. Here John Rossi helps friends sift through their belongings following the devastating October 2007 fire that destroyed their home. Credit: Andrea Booher, FEMA

Why do people live in places like southern California where homes intermingle with wooded areas and the risk of wildfire is so great? Leading social scientists have a surprising answer: because the emotional benefits interfere with their ability to assess the risks.

Recent fire activity in the state of California supports this unusual theory offered by researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). According to the U.S. Forest Service, October wildfires destroyed 2,000 homes, forced the evacuation of more than 1 million residents and resulted in seven fatalities.

"It's likely that people who live near heavily wooded areas in California focus on things they love about their location, like environmental beauty or proximity to the ocean, and simultaneously discount the risk of wildfire," said Jacqueline Meszaros, program director for decision, risk and management sciences at NSF.

Researchers found people link perceived risk and perceived benefit to emotional evaluations of a potential hazard. If people like an activity, they judge the risks as low. If people dislike an activity, they judge the risks as high. For example, people buy houses or cars they like and find emotionally attractive, then downplay risks associated with the purchase.

This may explain why people sometimes make seemingly irrational, high-risk decisions, such as settling along the coastline where there is greater vulnerability to earthquakes and hurricanes.

"One of the exciting things in the current generation of research is that emotional components of risk decisions are beginning to be understood in addition to other more established components," said Meszaros. "Turns out that emotions explain a fair amount of what surprises us about people and risks."

People also make decisions about risk based on how they feel about available information concerning a hazard. Interestingly, there was a great deal of information available about California wildfires before the events of October. A July 2007 study on California housing and wildland fires by researchers at the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and two U.S. Universities warned of possible problems.

The study found California has a large number of homes in or near highly wooded areas, has a high number of human-caused fires and has some of the most severe fire weather in the country. It also found most Californians live at lower elevations dominated by chaparral surveillances susceptible to frequent, high-intensity, crown fires.

"It's hard to say whether people knew of these findings, and if the findings figured into decisions about living in the area," said Meszaros. "But even if they had read the facts, we have a number of findings that suggest facts alone often are not enough to change peoples' perceptions of risks. People need to relate to those facts at an emotional level for risk judgments to be affected."

Providing "vivid information" about fire risks that engages emotional functions, not just rational ones, people theoretically would judge the risk of living near thickly wooded areas as higher. This could reduce serious public policy problems that result from emotional biases in risk perception and decision making.

Using the theory for certain types of risk communication might be important for city planners, who are considering allowing people to build in an area where there is a known risk. But not much is known yet about the dangers of presenting people with highly vivid information.

More is known about the conditions that lead people to discount vivid information and distrust the sender. For example, studies of fear appeals--such as certain anti-smoking advertising--suggests that some vivid messages can lead to undesirable responses. Certain fear messages may actually have led to more kids smoking.

Meszaros said scientists cannot forecast how many Californians are likely to rebuild in the same locations. She said scientists need better social and economic asset databases to test theories about things like disaster resilience, vulnerability and resettlement.

Source: NSF

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fewer shark attacks, above-average fatalities in 2013

Feb 20, 2014

The world experienced the lowest number of shark attacks since 2009, although fatalities in 2013 were above average, according to the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File report released today.

Wolf protection plan raises hackles in Southwest

Oct 30, 2013

In the small, rural community of Reserve, children waiting for the school bus gather inside wooden and mesh cages provided as protection from wolves. Parents consider the "kid cages" a reasonable precaution.

Gender equality creates new school boys

Sep 20, 2013

According to new Norwegian research, decades of gender equality measures have helped to change children's upbringing and their understanding of gender.

Recommended for you

Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Apr 16, 2014

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world's big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is ...

Japan stem cell body splashes cash on luxury furniture

Apr 14, 2014

A publicly-funded research institute in Japan, already embattled after accusing one of its own stem cell scientists of faking data, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on designer Italian furniture, reportedly to use up ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...