Cognitive Components of Risk Ratings

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Abstract

This study examined what lay people mean when they judge the “risk” of activities that involve the potential for accidental fatalities (e.g., hang gliding, living near a nuclear reactor). A sample of German and American students rated the “overall risk” of 14 such activities and provided 3 fatality estimates: the number of fatalities in an “average year,” the individual yearly fatality probability (or odds), and the number of fatalities in a “disastrous accident.” Subjects' fatality estimates were reasonably accurate and only moderately influenced by attitudes towards nuclear energy. Individual fatality probability correlated most highly with intuitive risk ratings. Disaster estimates correlated positively with risk ratings for those activities that had a low fatality probability and a relatively high disaster potential. Annual average fatality rates did not correlate with risk ratings at all. These findings were interpreted in terms of a two-dimensional cognitive structure. Subjective notions of risk were determined primarily by the personal chance of death; for some activities, “disaster potential” played a secondary role in shaping risk perception.

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