Demographic Influences on Risk Perceptions



Over the past 15 years, psychologists have empirically investigated how people perceive technological, consumer, and natural hazards. The psychometric-attitudes to risk being summarized by three factors: “dread,” whether the risk is known, and personal exposure to the risk. The results have been used to suggest that certain types of hazards are viewed very differently from other hazards. The purpose of this paper is somewhat different, in that it investigates whether individual demographic characteristics influence psychometric perceptions of risk. This paper makes use of a large, professionally conducted, survey of a wide cross-section of the residents of metropolitan Chicago. One thousand adults were interviewed in a random-digit dial telephone survey, producing a useable dataset of about 800. Data on the three risk factors mentioned above were obtained on 7-point scales for four common hazards: aviation accidents, fires in the home, automobile accidents, and stomach cancer. The survey also collected demographic data on respondents’age, schooling, income, sex, and race. Regressions were then conducted to relate the demographic characteristics to risk perceptions. Some strong general conclusions can be drawn. The results suggest that women, people with lower levels of schooling and income, younger people, and blacks have more dread of hazards. The exception being age-related illnesses which, not unnaturally, are feared by older people. Unlike previous literature, we cannot substantiate the argument that these groups of people are less informed about hazards and thus less accepting of them. The most likely leading explanation of the relationship between demographic factors and dread of a hazard is the perceived personal exposure to the hazard. People with greater perceived exposure to a hazard are more fearful.