Machine Design

Risks, benefits, and mental mistakes

You are reading our annual energy issue which looks at promising advances that could change the way we live. It is fair to say that certain energy technologies, particularly in the renewable area, have large, vocal followings. So we were intrigued by recent work from psychologists who found that many people make decisions about technology using emotions and mental shortcuts. Interestingly, people doing this generally don’t recognize their thought process isn’t strictly rational.

The research results ring true partly because researchers stayed away from politically charged technologies such as energy. Headed up by University of Oregon psychology Professor Paul Slovic and East-West Center Senior Fellow Melissa Finucane, the research group surveyed people’s opinions about various topics such as water fluoridation, cars, and food preservatives. They asked subjects in the study to list both the benefits and risks of each technology.

All in all, the researchers found people based their judgment about a technology on their feelings for it. People rated those they liked as having large benefits with little risk. When commenting on technologies they didn’t like, they could only think of disadvantages; few strong points came to their minds.

It wasn’t just the uninformed public who were prone to such black-andwhite assessments. Professionals making judgments in their field fell victim to them as well. In one case, members of the British Toxicology Society found few benefits in substances they thought were risky, few problems with those they liked.

There was a second part to Slovic and Finucane’s study. Their group had respondents read brief arguments in favor of various technologies they’d just opined on. Some of the arguments focused on the benefits of a technology, others stressed low risks.

These short passages turned out to be effective at changing the emotional appeal of the technologies. People who read about the benefits of a technology also changed their mind about its risks; they perceived it as being less risky. A point to note is that the passage they’d read mentioned nothing at all about risks. In a similar vein, people only told that the risks of a technology were mild started to look at its benefits in a more favorable light.

The way we feel about something also tends to make us ignore statistics even when we understand their implication. Researchers say our responses to uncertain situations appear to have an all-or-none quality that is sensitive to the possibility rather than the probability of strong positive or negative consequences. So events with very small probabilities carry great weight with most people.

This, they argue, helps explains the impact of big headlines about hazards such as nuclear power and exposure to extremely small amounts of toxic chemicals, despite widely available information about the small probabilities of their feared consequences.

It is not difficult to see how these conclusions pertain to the shrill public debates surrounding energy policy. People who have pet energy technologies don’t have to face painful trade-offs that are built into embracing them. Technologies we favor are likely to have few costs. Less favored technologies are all bad.

In this ideal world, decisions are easy.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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