Risk and Fear: How Do You Perceive Risk?

As a risk management consultant, trained and experienced in helping people assess risk I am always a little surprised by what scares people. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 many people refused (and still refuse) to fly although statistically you have a greater probability of being killed in a car accident than a plane crash. Similarly people fear cancer but according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Also why do some many people fear change?

David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard University and consultant in risk perception and communication, has done a lot of work in the area of risk perception. He has written two books, RISK!!! A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You (with George Gray) and How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts which help answer these questions.

Ropeik based much of his work on the research of Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and founder and president of Decision Research. Dr. Slovic through his research identified the psychological factors that enable us to decide what to be afraid of and how afraid to be. His book, The Perception of Risk is often cited when discussing the perception of risk.

As you would image our perceptions of risk and subsequent fear is a very personal issue framed by life experiences. Some people are risk averse (oh no, don’t go there) while others are risk prone (full speed ahead).

RISK AVERSE < ———————————————————————->    RISK PRONE

I don’t think you can change a person’s place on the risk continuum but an awareness of the psychological factors at play may help you understand others’ positions. Achieving a balance between risk prone and risk averse may lead to better decisions.


Ropeik’s article “Understanding Factors of Risk Perception” established fourteen (14) factors that affect our perception of risk. Some of the factors may be in conflict with others or have a stronger effect than others. In this post I’ll discuss four (4) of the factors – I’ll write about the others in future posts.

  • TRUST – As expected the more we trust the people, institutions (government, agency, corporation, association, or organization) and decision-making process, the less afraid we are. In light of the Gulf oil spill and several missteps, very few people trust the information provided by BP but they are starting to trust the statements made by Adm. Thad Allen (Ret., USCG).

Another important aspect of trust is the level of faith the person has in the decision-making process.  Involving people in creating the process as well as their participation reduces their fear levels.

  • CONTROL – The more we feel we can control the outcome of a hazard, we are less afraid of the risk. The control can be either physical (driving the car) or having a sense of control of the process (participating in discussions and decision-making). Unfortunately we tend to perceive we have more control than we actually do. We fear the other person driving while on their cell phone than when we are driving and using our cell phone. Our illusion of control often leads us to perceive risks as less risky than they are.
  • RISK vs. BENEFIT – The more we perceive benefit from the risk the less fearful we are of it. I am an avid skier so I don’t perceive skiing as being that dangerous but the sport terrifies others. Also many people saw significant benefits from the use of social media to associations and nonprofits and were not overly concerned with the risks. Others were afraid of the reputational exposures from social media and hesitant to embrace its use. Neither side is right or wrong it’s just how you perceive the risk-benefit analysis of social media.
  • PERSONIFICATION – When we know a “real” person or victim of the risk the more frightening it becomes. When we can put a face to a risk it becomes more fearful even though the actual risk is no greater than it was before a victim personified it. When we learn of a child abducted and hurt by a stranger we preach “stranger-danger” but a child is more likely statistically to be harmed by someone he or she knows than a stranger.

Fear is an emotion that can’t always be calmed by statistics and facts, so people do not always act rationally.  Decision making including risk assessment is a complex process affected by participants’ individual beliefs and life experiences.


Awareness of your and others’ perception of risk is the first step to more effective risk assessment and management. Our perceptions shape our decisions so we need to explore these factors while making risk decisions. Here are some questions to ponder while assessing risks.

  • Where are you and others on the risk continuum – risk averse or prone? How can you address the differing views?
  • How trusting are you? Do you trust your information sources? Do you trust the process? Do you trust the people working with you?
  • Are you a control freak or like to be controlled?
  • For you, at what point does the benefit outweigh the risk? Others?
  • Have you put a “face” to the risk? What effect does that have on your assessment?

First explore your assumptions about risk then ask these questions of the group involved in the process. Identifying your risk perception factors and assumptions can help you differentiate between “perceived” and “actual” risks. What are the real risks you need to manage to be successful?

  1. #1 by Grace Smith on August 2, 2010 - 4:20 pm

    This is interesting and helpful. I like the questions.

  2. #3 by Ken Groff on September 9, 2010 - 3:01 pm

    Excellent article and really makes you think about risk in daily life.

    • #4 by Leslie White on September 10, 2010 - 8:10 am

      Thank you for your comment. AS insurance and risk management folks we need to focus more attention on what is driving people’s risk perceptions to better evaluate the risk.

  1. Analyze This! « Risky Chronicles

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