From the Editors


  • Michael Greenberg,

  • Karen Lowrie

We periodically publish studies that use experimental designs to understand behaviors and reactions to communications. This issue presents four papers based on experimental designs. Using a U.S. audience, Branden Johnson examined the role of political ideology and a federal agency's decisions in order to assess trust of the agency and concurrence with its decisions. He observed that liberals were less trusting than political conservatives and ideology seemed to be more important than the actual decisions the agency made in response to events.

The vast majority of public surveys begin only with respondents’ existing state of knowledge. Supported by the Electric Power Research Institute, Lauren Fleishman, Wandi Bruine de Bruin, and Granger Morgan provided background information to a group of participants and then the respondents were asked to rank 10 technologies (e.g., coal with CCS, natural gas, nuclear, various renewables, energy efficiency) and other low-carbon portfolios composed of these technologies. Under the assumption that the U.S. government mandated a reduction in CO2 emissions, participants favored energy efficiency, followed by nuclear, integrated gasification combined-cycle coal with CCS, and wind. The authors note that the public preferred diverse portfolios that contained CCS and nuclear over alternatives when they fully understood the benefits, costs, and limitations of each.

How people make risk choices is a fascinating and much debated subject. Focusing on how individuals decide about financial risk, Ivo Vlaev, Petko Kusev, Neil Stewart, Silvio Aldrovandi, and Nick Chater used an experimental design to investigate the willingness to gamble with pensions, salary, mortgages, investments, insurance, and in several other financial domains. The authors found considerable variation across the financial domains and concluded that people do not appear to have underlying preferences for risk—instead, context and experience determine choices even when the risk and reward of alternative options are known to them.

Chris Smerecnik, Ilse Mesters, Loes Kessels, Robert Ruiter, Nanne de Vries, and Hein de Vries note that graphs, pictures, tables, and other decision aids are becoming more widely used in risk communications. Using a small student sample, they explored the role of cognitive workload and attention. Cognitive workload (mean pupil size and peak pupil dilation) and attention directed to the risk information (viewing time, number of eye fixations, and eye fixation durations) were examined. The results showed that graphs attracted and held attention for a longer period of time than textual information, leading to better understanding.

Our portfolio of papers about nuclear power and nuclear waste risks continue in this issue. It is expected that in both developed and less developed nations, nuclear fuel will increasingly be used to generate electricity. The issue of what to do with the high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants will continue to grow more compelling over time. Fuel cycles that reuse so-called spent nuclear fuel are being considered at the policy and science levels. Behnam Taebi and Andrew Kadak's paper examines and highlights the burdens imposed on current versus future generations by the choices made about reusing nuclear materials, and in the process the authors pose some important questions that should be answered as part of this debate. Perception of nuclear power risks is examined by Judith de Groot and Linda Steg. Funded by the Dutch energy company ESSENT, the authors examined the role of moral norms as a requisite to take action against nuclear power. Surveying a small sample of Dutch residents, they found moral views to be strong predictors of action, especially among those who oppose the technology.

Terrorism-related risks have become a consistent topic in our journal pages. In this issue, Lawrence Wein, Youngsoo Choi, and Sylvie Denuit ask: “If weapons of mass destruction were used, should people be sheltered in place or immediately evacuated?” The authors used a radiation fallout model and a traffic flow model to assess the evacuation versus shelter-in-place decisions after the daytime ground-level detonation of a 10-kiliton improvised nuclear device in Washington, DC. The hypothetical exercise suggests that sheltering in place in basements is a prudent step for at least 12 hours after such a detonation.

Engineers, scientists, and managers are expected to constantly innovate, thereby leading to better products and lower costs. But there are risks. Recognizing this pressure, Desheng DashWu, Xie Kefan, Chen Gang, and Gui Ping suggest an approach for isolating likely risks in scheduling, cost, and quality, and test the approach with an example from a Chinese motor vehicle company.

As incidents of contamination are reported across the globe, invasive alien species (IAS) are recognized as a serious threat to the environment and to food supplies. Sponsored by the Australian government, David Cook, Shuang Liu, Brendan Murphy, and W. Mark Lonsdale consider multi-institutional adaptive systems that rapidly exchange information, plan, and respond together as an effective way of managing the risks and responding to threats.

The pinewood nematode (PWN) is one of the most destructive tree-killing pests. Using Norway as a case study, Bjørn Økland, Olav Skarpaas, Martin Schroeder, Christer Magnusson, Ake Lindelo, and Karl Thunes built a simulation model to evaluate the chance of successful eradication of a hypothetical introduction of the pest. The model showed the probability of successful eradication in 20 years to be low. Furthermore, this low likelihood of success did not change unless unrealistic host tree removal measures were taken, such as host tree removal radius of 8,000 meters around each detection point.

We have been receiving an increasing number of submissions about motor vehicle accidents, and the paper by Roni Factor, Gad Yair, and David Mahalel adds a sociological perspective to the group of technical papers we have published. Supported by the Israel Ministry of Science and Technology and the Israel National Road Safety Authority, and other organizations, the authors examined the relationship between type, outcomes, and rates of motor vehicle accidents and social characteristics using a large database that merges official Israeli road-accident records with socioeconomic data from two censuses. The results show different social groups indeed tend to be involved in motor vehicle accidents of different types and severity. Notably, not surprisingly, they found that low socioeconomic status people disproportionately are killed in these accidents.

Finally, Warner North reviews B. John Garrick's recent book Quantifying and Controlling Catastrophic Risks. North's opinion of the book is highly favorable and he stresses the book's importance as a classroom resource for professors and its value for anyone interested in study of catastrophes.