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Overreaction to Fearsome Risks †

By Cass R. Sunstein and Richard Zeckhauser


“….the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933 When risks threaten, cognitive mechanisms bias people toward action or inaction. Fearsome risks are highly available. The availability bias tells us that this leads people to overestimate their frequency. Therefore, they also overreact to curtail the likelihood or consequences of such risks. More generally, fear can paralyze efforts to think clearly about risks. We draw on a range of environmental risks to show the following: 1. Fear leads us to neglect probability of occurrence; 2. As fearsome environmental risks are usually imposed by others (as externalities), indignation stirs excess reaction; 3. We often misperceive or miscalculate such risks. Two experiments demonstrate probability neglect when fearsome risks arise: a. willingness-to-pay to eliminate the cancer risk from arsenic in water (described in vivid terms) did not vary despite a 10-fold variation in risk; b. the willingness-to-accept price for a painful but non dangerous electric shock did not vary between a 1 % and 100 % chance. Possible explanations relate to the role of the amygdala in impairing cognitive brain function. Government and the law, both made by mortals and both responding to public pressures, similarly neglect probabilities for fearsome risks. Examples relating to shark attacks, Love Canal, alar and terrorism are discussed

Topics: action bias, availability bias, biased assessment, risk regulation, risk perception JEL Classification, D81, Q51, D61, H4 Environmental and Resource Economics, forthcoming
Year: 2012
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