Two conceptions of emotion in risk regulation.

AuthorKahan, Dan M.

Recent work in cognitive and social psychology makes it clear that emotion plays a critical role in public perceptions of risk, but doesn't make clear exactly what that role is or why it matters. This Article examines two competing theories of risk perception, which generate two corresponding understandings of emotion and its significance for risk regulation. The "irrational weigher" theory asserts that laypersons' emotional apprehensions of risk are heuristic substitutes for more reflective judgments, and as such lead to systematic errors. It therefore counsels that risk regulation be assigned to politically insulated experts whose judgments are free of emotion's distorting impact. The "cultural evaluator" theory, in contrast, asserts that emotional apprehensions of risk reflect persons' expressive appraisals of putatively dangerous activities. It implies that emotional apprehensions of risk should at least sometimes be afforded normative weight in law and also generates distinctive strategies for reconciling sound risk regulation with genuinely participatory, democratic policymaking.

  1. THREE THEORIES OF RISK PERCEPTION, TWO CONCEPTIONS OF EMOTION A. The Rational Weigher Theory: Emotion as Byproduct B. The Irrational Weigher Theory: Emotions as Bias C. The Cultural Evaluator Theory: Emotion as Expressive Perception II. EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE A. The Cognitive Priority of Emotion to Risk Perception B. The Effects of Emotion on Information Processing C. Emotion and Systematic Reasoning: Substitutes or Complements? III. NORMATIVE AND PRESCRIPTIVE IMPLICATIONS A. Expertise--Scientific and Moral B. On Education of the Emotions CONCLUSION Are emotions subversive of reason or essential constituents of it? Do they defeat realization of our ends by enfeebling our calculative faculties, inducing us to form deluded beliefs, and undermining our wills? Or do they perfect our rationality by supplying us with a capacity to perceive which states of affairs express our values, the motivation to pursue those conditions, and the power to imagine contingencies that threaten or advance them? These questions have long divided both philosophers and psychologists. (1) Competing answers contend with one another in law as well. (2)

    Recent advances in the study of risk perception seem to furnish decisive evidence of emotion's antagonism to reason. A growing body of empirical research supplies compelling proof of the critical role that emotions play in the apprehension of personal and societal dangers. (3) This role, according to the predominant understanding, is a heuristic one. Lacking access to sound empirical information, or the time and cognitive capacity to make sense of it, ordinary people conform their perceptions of risk to the visceral reactions that putatively dangerous activities evoke. (4) These snap judgments might serve individuals better than nothing, the conventional account suggests. But they don't serve individuals nearly as well as the type of considered, reflective assessment for which they are a substitute. A substantial body of writing in the field of risk perception documents the numerous ways in which affect-driven risk appraisals lead ordinary people, and their popularly accountable representatives, to take positions inimical to society's well-being. The remedy, according to this work, is to shield law from the distorting influence of emotion, primarily by delegating regulatory power to politically insulated experts, who can evaluate the costs and benefits of asserted hazards (nuclear power, genetically modified foods, handguns, etc.) in a deliberate and reasoned fashion. (5)

    My goal in this Article is to challenge this position. I don't mean to raise any question about the demonstrated centrality of emotions to risk perception, but only about the prevailing interpretation of it. The conclusion that emotional appraisals are irrational is integral, I'll argue, to a model of risk perception that sees the positions people take toward putatively dangerous activities as reflecting their implicit (and usually skewed) weighing of instrumental costs and benefits. I will lay emphasis instead on an account that sees risk perceptions as embodying individuals' cultural evaluations of the meanings expressed by society's decision to tolerate or abate particular risks. (6) This model of risk perception, I'll argue, suggests that emotion functions not as a heuristic substitute for considered appraisals of information but rather as a perceptive faculty uniquely suited to discerning what stance toward risk best coheres with a person's values. Without the power this affective capacity supplies, it would be impossible for individuals to form rational cultural evaluations of risk. This account suggests that it would also be a mistake to seal off risk regulation from the influence of affect-driven risk appraisals or to assume that affect-driven appraisals cannot themselves be influenced by education and deliberation.

    I will develop this argument in three steps. I will begin, in Part I, by describing three theories of risk perception, two of which treat emotion as essential to the cognition of risk. In Part II, I will canvass empirical findings that bear on these alternative understandings of how emotion contributes to risk perception. Finally, in Part III, I will examine what is at stake as a normative and prescriptive matter in the contest between these two conceptions of emotion in risk regulation.


    The profound impact of emotion on risk perception cannot be seriously disputed. Distinct emotional states--from fear to dread to anger to disgust (7)--and distinct emotional phenomena--from affective orientations to symbolic associations and imagery (8)--have been found to explain perceptions of the dangerousness of all manner of activities and things--from pesticides (9) to mobile phones, (10) from red meat consumption (11) to cigarette smoking. (12)

    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.

    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, (13) to engage in unhealthy forms of recreation in exchange for hedonic pleasure, (14) to accept intrusive regulation to mitigate threats to national security (15) or the environment, (16) 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). (17) This relationship is depicted as Figure 1.

    2. The Irrational Weigher Theory: Emotions 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. (18) Much of contemporary social psychology and behavioral economics has been dedicated to cataloging the myriad distortions--from the "availability cascades" (19) to "probability neglect" (20) to "overconfidence bias" (21) to "status quo bias" (22)--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. (23) 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," (24) as opposed to "System 2 reasoning," which is "slower, serial, effortful, and deliberately controlled" (25) and typically involves "execution of learned rules." (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. (27)

      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. (28) Proponents of this view have thus linked emotion to nearly all the cognitive biases shown to...

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