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Risk Perceptions

March 24, 2013

This is part of a series of posts I’m calling “From the Literature”, where I digest an academic article related to my graduate school research.

THE ARTICLE

Slovic, P. (1987). Perception of Risk. Science, 236(4799), 280–285.

IN ONE TWEET

Lay people and experts interpret “risk” differently. Lay people think about how dreadful or unknown the risk is, not just annual fatalities.

WHAT I LEARNED

There is an important distinction between how experts and lay people (i.e. the public) understand risks/hazards. Experts tend to focus on annual fatalities from a risk while lay people evaluate risks based on psychological factors. Most studies have found that there are 2 main psychological factors – 1) dread or how catastrophic an incident would be and 2) unknown – or how observable/delayed the impacts of an incident are. Consequently, risks can be plotted in terms of dreadful and unknown characteristics (see images). Risks that are rated as high dread and high unknown (i.e. nuclear power) tend to incite a lot more fear/desire for regulation from the public.

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 5.20.23 PMScreen Shot 2013-03-24 at 5.20.42 PM

MY OPINION

Lately I’ve been wondering about where cybersecurity risks fall into this framework. I would expect there to be high dread since there are some very catastrophic potential consequences of a cyber attack. However, before I started doing research on cybersecurity, I really didn’t worry about it very much. So it seems to me like the public is largely unaware of cybersecurity risks (beyond anti-virus software). However experts would seem to rate cybersecurity risks very high on the unknown scale since malware can go undetected for a long time. If that’s the case – then a successful cybersecurity attack in the U.S. would probably have very negative repercussions beyond the immediate damage (ex. long-term effects as mentioned in this Homeland Security document that “undermine the public’s morale and confidence in our national economic and political institutions”).

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