2. Three Theories of Risk Perception, Two Conceptions of Emotion
The profound impact of emotion on risk perception cannot be seriously disputed. Distinct emotional states–-from fear to dread to anger to disgust (Slovic, 2000)--and distinct emotional phenomena--from affective orientations to symbolic associations and imagery (Peters & Slovic, 2007)--have been found to explain perceptions of the dangerousness of all manner of activities and things--from pesticides (Alhakami & Slovic, 1994) to mobile phones (Siegrist, Earle, Gutscher, & Keller, 2005), from red meat consumption (Berndsen & van der Pligt, 2005) to cigarette smoking (Slovic, et al., 2005).
More amenable to dispute, however, is exactly why emotions exert this influence. Obviously, emotions work in conjunction with more discrete mechanisms of cognition in some fashion. But which ones and how? To sharpen the assessment of the evidence that bears on these questions, I will now sketch out three alternative models of risk perception--the rational weigher, the irrational weigher, and the cultural evaluator theories--and their respective accounts of what (if anything) emotions contribute to the cognition of risk.
2.1. The Rational Weigher Theory: Emotion as Byproduct
Based on the premises of neoclassical economics, the rational weigher theory asserts that individuals, over time and in aggregate, process information about risky undertakings in a way that maximizes their expected utility. The decision whether to accept hazardous occupations in exchange for higher wages, (Viscusi, 1983) to engage in unhealthy forms of recreation in exchange for hedonic pleasure, (Philipson & Posner, 1993) to accept intrusive regulation to mitigate threats to national security (Posner, 2006) or the environment (Posner, 2004) -- all turn on a utilitarian balancing of costs and benefits.
On this theory, emotions don’t make any contribution to the cognition of risk. They enter into the process, if they do at all, only as reactive byproducts of individuals’ processing of information: if a risk appears high relative to benefits, individuals will likely experience a negative emotion--perhaps fear, dread, or anger--whereas if the risk appears low they will likely experience a positive one--such as hope or relief (Loewenstein, et al., 2001). This relationship is depicted in Figure 2.1.
2.2. The Irational Weigher Theory: Emotion as bias
The irrational weigher theory asserts that individuals lack the capacity to process information that maximizes their expected utility. Because of constraints on information, time, and computational power, ordinary individuals must resort to heuristic substitutes for considered analysis; those heuristics, moreover, invariably cause individuals’ evaluations of risks to err in substantial and recurring ways (Jolls, Sunstein, & Thaler, 1998). Much of contemporary social psychology and behavioral economics has been dedicated to cataloging the myriad distortions--from the “availability cascades” (Kuran & Sunstein, 1998) to “probability neglect” (Sunstein, 2002) to “overconfidence” bias (Fischhoff, Slovic, & Lictenstein, 1977) to “status quo bias” (Kahneman, 1991)--that systematically skew risk perceptions, particularly those of the lay public.
For the irrational weigher theory, the contribution that emotion makes to risk perception is, in the first instance, a heuristic one. Individuals rely on their visceral, affective reactions to compensate for the limits on their ability to engage in more considered assessments (Loewenstein, et al., 2001). More specifically, irrational weigher theorists have identified emotion or affect as a central component of “System 1 reasoning,” which is “fast, automatic, effortless, associative, and often emotionally charged,” as opposed to “System 2 reasoning,” which is “slower, serial, effortful, and deliberately controlled” ((Kahneman, 2003, p. 1451), and typically involves “execution of learned rules” (Frederick, 2005, p. 26). System 1 is clearly adaptive in the main--heuristic reasoning furnishes guidance when lack of time, information, and cognitive ability make more systematic forms of reasoning infeasible--but it remains obviously “error prone” in comparison to the more the “more deliberative [and] calculative” System 2 (Sunstein, 2005, p. 68).
Indeed, according to the irrational weigher theory, emotion-pervaded forms of heuristic reasoning can readily transmute into bias. The point isn’t merely that emotion-pervaded reasoning is less accurate than cooler, calculative reasoning; rather it’s that habitual submission to its emotional logic ultimately displaces reflective thinking, inducing “behavioral responses that depart from what individuals view as the best course of action”--or at least would view as best if their judgment were not impaired (Loewenstein, et al., 2001). Proponents of this view have thus linked emotion to nearly all the cognitive biases shown to distort risk perceptions (Fischhoff, et al., 1977; Sunstein, 2005). The relationship between emotion, rational calculation of expected utility, and risk perception that results is depicted in Figure 2.2.
2.3. The Cultural Evaluator Theory: Emotion as Expressive Perception
Finally there’s the cultural evaluator theory of risk perception. This model rests on a view of rational agency that sees individuals as concerned not merely with maximizing their welfare in some narrow consequentialist sense but also with adopting stances toward states of affairs that appropriately express the values that define their identities (Anderson, 1993). Often when an individual is assessing what position to take on a putatively dangerous activity, she is, on this account, not weighing (rationally or irrationally) her expected utility but rather evaluating the social meaning of that activity (Lessig, 1995). Against the background of cultural norms (particularly contested ones), would the law’s designation of that activity as inimical to society’s well-being affirm her values or denigrate them (Kahan, et al., 2006)?
Like the irrational weigher theory, the cultural evaluator theory treats emotions as entering into the cognition of risk. But it offers a very different account of how--one firmly aligned with the position that sees emotions as constituents of reason.
Martha Nussbaum describes emotions as “judgments of value” (Nussbaum, 2001). They orient a person who values some good, endowing her with the attitude that appropriately expresses her regard for that good in the face of a contingency that either threatens or advances it. On this account, for example, grief is the uniquely appropriate and accurate judgment for someone who values another who has died; fear is the appropriate and accurate judgment for someone who values her or another’s well-being in the face of an impending threat to it; anger is the appropriate and accurate judgment for someone who values her own honor in response to an action that conveys insufficient respect. People who fail to experience these emotions under such circumstances--or who experience these or other emotions in circumstances that do not warrant them--lack a capacity of discernment essential to their flourishing as agents capable of holding values and pursuing them.
Rooted heavily in Aristotelian philosophy, Nussbaum’s account is, as she herself points out, amply grounded in modern empirical work in psychology and neuroscience. Antonio Damasio’s influential “somatic marker” account, for example, identifies emotions with a particular area in the brain (Damasio, 1994). Persons who have suffered damage to that part of the brain display impaired capacity to recognize or imagine conditions that might affect goods they care about, and thus lack motivation to respond accordingly. They are perceived by others and often by themselves as mentally disabled in a distinctive way, as suffering from a profound kind of moral and social obtuseness that makes them incapable of engaging the world in a way that matches their own ends. If being rational consists, at least in part, of “see[ing] which values [we] hold” and knowing how to “deploy these values in [our] judgments,” then “those who are unaware of their emotions or of their emotional lacks” will necessarily be deficient in a capacity essential to being “a rational person” (Stocker & Hegeman, 1996, p. 105).
The cultural evaluator theory views emotions as enabling individuals to perceive what stance toward risks coheres with their values. Cultural norms obviously play a role in shaping the emotional reactions people form toward activities such as nuclear power, handgun possession, homosexuality, and the like (Elster, 1999). When people draw on their emotions to judge the risk that such an activity poses, they form an expressively rational attitude about what it would mean for their cultural worldviews for society to credit the claim that that activity is dangerous and worthy of regulation, as depicted in Figure 2.3. Persons who subscribe to an egalitarian ethic, for example, have been shown to be particularly sensitive to environmental and technological risks, the recognition of which coheres with condemnation of commercial activities that generate distinctions in wealth and status. Persons who hold individualist values, in contrast, tend to dismiss concerns about global warming, nuclear waste disposal, food additives, and the like--an attitude that expresses their commitment to the autonomy of markets and other private orderings (Douglas, 1966). Individualistic persons worry instead about the risk that gun control--a policy that denigrates individualist values--will render law-abiding citizens defenseless (Kahan, Braman, Gastil, Slovic, & Mertz, 2007). Persons who subscribe to hierarchical values worry about the dangers of drug distribution, homosexuality, and other forms of behavior that defy traditional norms (Wildavsky & Dake, 1990).
This account of emotion doesn’t see its function as a heuristic one. That is, emotions don’t just enable a person to latch onto a position in the absence of time to acquire and reflect on information. Rather, as a distinctive faculty of cognition, emotions perform a unique role in enabling her to identify the stance that is expressively rational for someone with her commitments. Without the contribution that emotion makes to her powers of expressive perception, she would be lacking this vital incident of rational agency, no matter how much information, no matter how much time, and no matter how much computational acumen she possessed.