In his book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Ottawa-based writer Dan Gardner summarizes the work of Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon professor and one of the pioneers on studying how people perceive risk.
Gardner's entire book is about how terrible people are at understanding the risks in their everyday lives. People are incredibly successful at both ignoring great risks, amplifying concerns that are really of low risk and then rationalizing their irrational response to risk.
Gardner lists some of the identifiers Slovic found that shape risk perception. When applied to everything from the Haldi Road Recovery Centre to the Northern Gateway pipeline, it would likely be no surprise to Prof. Slovic why these issues have been so emotional among Prince George residents.
Catastrophic potential (a really bad single event) raises our perception of risk more than the prospect of numerous minor incidents. In the case of pipelines, minor incidents happen far more frequently than major spills like the Kalamazoo spill by Enbridge in 2010.
Still with Kalamazoo, bad events in the past increase people's sense of risk. So does media attention, lack of trust in the players involved, the level of difficulty to fix the problem and man-made origins (seen as more dangerous than natural problems).
Premier Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals have specifically reacted to equity, one of the risk perception influences Slovic identified. Gardner defines equity as "if the benefits go to some and the dangers to others, we raise the risk ranking."
Actuaries get to figure out degrees of risk for a living. They are the people behind the insurance agents who calculate levels of risk and then put a financial value on it. Unlike the rest of us, catastrophic potential, bad events in the past, media attention, lack of trust, ability to fix the problem, how equal the risks are distributed and whether it's a man-made or naturally caused problem, play little or no part in calculating risk.
Neither do some of the other influences on our perceptions of risk that Slavic identified. These ones don't apply to Northern Gateway but they do explain some of the Haldi Road neighbourhood reaction to the women's recovery centre.
People can't help but raise the level of risk on behaviour outside of their personal control. As Gardner puts it, that's why we feel more comfortable driving our cars than being a passenger on a jumbo jet, even though driving is much riskier to our personal safety. Furthermore, people are willing to take on more risk if they volunteer for it, as opposed to it being forced upon them, as so many in the Haldi Road area clearly feel was done.
To make matters worse, people can't help linking risk and benefits, Gardner writes. While our rational minds can take the time to process whether something is high-risk and high-reward, high-risk and low-reward, low-risk and low-reward, or low-risk and high-reward, people often don't take the time to decide which one of those four scenarios is before them before deciding on the merits of the situation.
Our default position is the greater the risk, the lower the benefit, and we only move from that view when we allow our logic and some careful analysis to make a compelling case. We have to consciously initiate that process of reflection and further consideration or there is little or no chance our first reaction will change.
Sadly, people changing their minds on important issues, particularly if they are politicians, are seen as weak and wishy-washy, even though it shows someone who is thoughtful and well-informed.
One thing we can all agree on, however, is that leaders unwilling to change their views because of how it will be perceived are a risk to everyone.