Immediacy Affects Risk Assessments
New experiment demonstrates what we already knew:
That’s because people tend to view their immediate emotions, such as their perceptions of threats or risks, as more intense and important than their previous emotions.
In one part of the study focusing on terrorist threats, using materials adapted from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Van Boven and his research colleagues presented two scenarios to people in a college laboratory depicting warnings about traveling abroad to two countries.
Participants were then asked to report which country seemed to have greater terrorist threats. Many of them reported that the country they last read about was more dangerous.
“What our study has shown is that when people learn about risks, even in very rapid succession where the information is presented to them in a very clear and vivid way, they still respond more strongly to what is right in front of them,” Van Boven said.
Human emotions stem from a very old system in the brain, Van Boven says. When it comes to reacting to threats, real or exaggerated, it goes against the grain of thousands of years of evolution to just turn off that emotional reaction. It’s not something most people can do, he said.
“And that’s a problem, because people’s emotions are fundamental to their judgments and decisions in everyday life,” Van Boven said. “When people are constantly being bombarded by new threats or things to be fearful of, they can forget about the genuinely big problems, like global warming, which really need to be dealt with on a large scale with public support.”
In today’s 24-hour society, talk radio, the Internet and extensive media coverage of the “threat of the day” only exacerbate the trait of focusing on our immediate emotions, he said.
“One of the things we know about how emotional reactions work is they are not very objective, so people can get outraged or become fearful of what might actually be a relatively minor threat,” Van Boven said. “One worry is some people are aware of these kinds of effects and can use them to manipulate our actions in ways that we may prefer to avoid.”
“If you’re interested in having an informed citizenry you tell people about all the relevant risks, but what our research shows is that is not sufficient because those things still happen in sequence and people will still respond immediately to whatever happens to be in front of them,” he said. “In order to make good decisions and craft good policies we need to know how people are going to respond.”