Why Emotionally Evocative Risks Scare People More: How We Can Be More Rational — Part I


Ask any economist, and you’ll get an earful about how bad most people are at rationally assessing risk. This has proven especially evident during COVID, with personal blind spots causing many people to needlessly place themselves in harm’s way — or ruin their quality of life taking precautions that don’t actually make a difference.

In this two-part series on the role of emotion in risk assessment, we’ll explain why certain concerns spark the most fear. We’ll also offer insight to help you implement logic-based risk assessment.

The Role of Ambiguity

While rational decision-making is always a challenge, a growing body of research suggests that it’s particularly problematic when dealing with ambiguity, in which the probability of various outcomes is unknown. Ambiguity prompts a major emotional response, which can make it difficult to objectively identify risks tied to, say, gambling or COVID-era socializing.

This tendency can spiral out of control when it feels as if even the experts don’t know what to make of the issue at hand. This lack of understanding is highlighted in the problematic risk-assessing qualities referenced by the Decision Research Institute’s Paul Slovic. He also believes that risk analysis suffers when we personally feel that we lack control.

Risk Origins

Paul Slovic points to the origin of a given risk as essential to understanding how it will be perceived. For example, most people regard man-made risks as more dangerous than natural disasters — or pandemics. Hence, why some people advocated for a strong response to September 11th but are unwilling to take action to combat a virus responsible for far more deaths.

The many risks of modern life may seem impossible to understand, but it helps to start with assessing our own weaknesses. Only then can we truly grasp how risk influences our day-to-day life and what we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.