Science News (pg. 190)  [Printer-friendly version]
September 16, 2000


The science of decision making grapples with sex, race, and power

[Rachel's introduction: Risk is not objectively measurable. "Defining
risk is an exercise in power," says Paul Slovic, a risk assessment
expert. White males consistently rank various risks lower than women
and non-whites do. If risk isn't an objectively measurable quantity,
and if assessments vary systematically by sex and race, whose idea of
risk should be used when governments and industries decide what's an
"acceptable" risk?]

By Ruth Bennett

Try a sports metaphor, Paul Slovic urges psychology graduate students
learning about risk assessment at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

There are umpires who say, "I call them as I see them," and others who
say, "I call them as they are," he tells the students.

In his classes, Slovic, who is president of the firm Decision Research
in Eugene, as well as a psychology professor, has expanded the umping
metaphor first suggested by late Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky.
In their everyday decisions, people are most likely to reason in a
third way, says Slovic: "They ain't nothing 'til I call them."

Welcome to the bold new subjectivism in risk-assessment theory, an
interdisciplinary branch of decision-making research that draws on
psychology, political science, and economics.

The emerging direction of this field is less about the mathematical
deduction of risk than it is about the perception of risk. Slovic put
it another way in the August 1999 Risk Analysis: "Danger is real, but
the concept of risk is socially constructed."

The science of risk assessment -- formerly characterized by actuarial
tables that insurance companies use to calculate premiums -- is
getting a whiff of postmodernism. Studies are revealing differences in
the way different groups of people look at danger, raising questions
about the fixed and possibly biological nature of those perceptions.

For many, the idea of subjectivity in risk-perception research can be
unsettling. Isn't there a particular number that could be assigned to,
say, the odds of dying from radon exposure or from having an
infelicitous encounter with a semitrailer truck?

The problem with that view, Slovic argues, is that there are multiple
ways to measure the costs involved. Consider the risk of death from
radon. It could be expressed, for example, as deaths per million
people exposed, as years of life expectancy lost due to exposure, as
deaths as a function of the concentration of radon present, or in lots
of other ways.

Moreover, the way risk is measured reveals the value system of the
measurer, Slovic claims. Framing a risk in terms of reduction in life
expectancy, for example, values the lives of the young over those of
older adults, who have less of that resource to lose. Simply measuring
deaths per million equates the suffering of those who expired quickly
with those who lingered painfully.

Because the way risk is defined dictates the best course of risk
reduction, any definition is fraught with value judgments. Says
Slovic: "Defining risk is thus an exercise in power." Since studies
repeatedly show that definitions of risk depend on people's racial
group or their gender, this conclusion intensifies the stakes in
assessing risk.

Group differences

The first evidence of group differences caught researchers by
surprise, says Slovic. In the early 1990s, he and his colleagues were
analyzing data from a survey of perceptions of environmental health
risks in the United States. "We just happened to run the data by race
and gender, and [the effect] kind of leapt out at us," he says.

They called their discovery the "white male effect." White men rated a
variety of risks, from nuclear waste to street drugs, as significantly
less threatening than did white females or men and women of other
races. The white men who rated the risks the lowest also scored
differently from the rest of the participants on several other
factors. They put more trust in experts and resisted the idea that the
public should give input on decisions about risk made by government

Melissa L. Finucane, a colleague of Slovic's at Decision Research,
recently tried to reproduce the white male effect, this time sampling
more broadly from nonwhite populations. In the July Health, Risk &
Society, she and her colleagues found the effect first reported in
1994 still to be valid.

Her team interviewed 1,204 U.S. adults who identified themselves as
white, Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, or multiracial. The
researchers asked participants for their views on the threat to
themselves and their families of 13 activities and technologies. They
also considered the risk level for 27 hazards to the U.S. public as a
whole. Moreover, the team presented statements expressing various
sociopolitical attitudes and asked participants whether they agreed or

Women and nonwhites provided higher risk estimates for every question
about risk to self and family as well as to nearly all questions about
risk to the U.S. public.

In addition to their lower risk estimates, white males reported
different perceptions regarding other factors, Finucane says. They
were significantly more likely to disagree with the statement that
they had little control over risks to their health, for example.

From the survey responses, Finucane suggests that white males may have
a lower risk perception in part because they view their own social
power and control over risks as high. These attitudinal differences
between the groups mean the white-male effect is probably based on
sociopolitical factors and not biological differences, the research
team asserts.

Differing perceptions

Margo Wilson, a psychologist at McMaster University in Hamilton,
Ontario, bristles at the suggestion that the data from the University
of Oregon researchers eliminate biology as an agent of the differing
perceptions. "I think they've misrepresented what a biological model
might be," she says.

With psychologist Martin Daly, Wilson has argued that young, single
males may have an adaptive advantage to being blind to dangers, at
least for certain types of risks in certain types of circumstances. If
derring-do proves irresistible to potential mates, the payoff in
reproductive success may outweigh the decrease in overall life
expectancy for this group.

A young-male effect that results from men's and women's different
sexual strategies, rather than from culture, makes sense from an
evolutionary perspective, Daly and Wilson claim.

Many of the risk-perception questions posed in Slovic's and Finucane's
work, such as those having to do with nuclear technology, are simply
beside the point for any evolutionary model, Wilson says. Men and
women have faced mating dilemmas that have essentially remained
unchanged as long as there have been people to mate, so successful
strategies have had time to manifest themselves as sex-specific,
biologically embedded psychologies. Nuclear technology, on the other
hand, is simply too recent for any talk of a biologically adapted
response to be meaningful.

Furthermore, just what participants are responding to when they answer
Finucane's questions isn't exactly clear, Wilson continues. For
example, men and women might -- for reasons that are biologically
based -- react differently to questions involving risk to the family.
White and nonwhite males may answer the questions differently because
of sociologically based disparities, such as those in education or

The real comparison, Wilson says, shouldn't be across race and sex,
but within groups closely matched in cultural factors. For example,
data from Daly and Wilson's book Homicide (1988, Walter De Gruyter)
indicate that in each ethnic group and culture they studied, males
kill each other at a significantly greater rate compared with females
killing females. And yet, she says, women in Chicago kill other women
more than men kill other men in England.

Does that say there isn't a sex difference? Wilson asks. She contends
that it merely shows that cultural variables can obscure a noncultural

Immediate concern

The question of group differences in risk perception isn't just
academic. It's also of immediate concern to policy analysts. If risk
isn't an objectively measurable quantity, and if assessments vary
systematically by sex and race, whose standard should prevail when
governments and industries must determine an acceptable risk level?

John D. Graham, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in
Boston, says that researchers at his center have found that female
scientists perceive higher risk from a number of potential hazards
than male scientists do. That result confounds any attempt to reframe
the debate as one pitting educated opinion against lay beliefs.

In Graham's view, the problems raised by the white male effect can be
avoided as long as the public has sufficient input into risk

In practice, says Nils-Eric Sahlin, a soft-spoken professor of
philosophy at Lund University in Sweden, risk experts don't often
indulge the judgments of the public. Experts, says Sahlin, are quick
to characterize nonspecialists' risk judgments as naive. That's wrong,
he says.

This opinion -- that views differ not because of naivete but because
each group accurately reports its own, very different life experiences
of risk -- is gaining popularity as part of the political movement
known as environmental justice, says Robin Collin, a law professor at
the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Collin is a supporter of the movement, which advocates an equal
distribution among people of benefits and burdens from decisions
affecting the environment and the use of natural resources. She claims
that in any government decision about risk, the most precautionary
standard should be embraced.

"If we are concerned about protecting future generations, we ought to
be following the risk perceptions and judgments of women and people of
color," she says.

For Sahlin, attempting to solve policy difficulties by favoring one
group -- any group -- isn't the answer. The issue goes deeper than
differences in gauging risk levels. Even if all groups assessed risks
equally, opinions could diverge. "You and I might agree the
probability of a fatal accident is .9," he says, "but you say it's
worth taking it, and I say it's not. Then, we have a problem."

It's a problem, Sahlin says, that can only be solved by providing full
information about what experts know and don't know about particular
dangers. The white male effect reflects a gap in trust between people
with power and those without, between the sexes, and among the races,
he says. The effect can be erased only by full disclosure and
information sharing, a suggestion he acknowledges is not mainstream.
"Paul [Slovic] says this is a crazy idea," Sahlin adds with a laugh.

Indeed, the dogma that the public will settle for nothing less than a
risk-free society is well rooted in the risk-perception field. As
early as 1981, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and Stanford's
Tversky demonstrated that people value a risk reduction from 1 percent
to zero more highly than the equivalent reduction from 2 percent to 1
percent. The general public, risk researchers have assumed, would not
take kindly to the news that risk elimination may be impossible to

In an actual test of this assumption, however, Kazuya Nakayachi of the
University of Shizuoka in Yada, Japan, reported in 1998 that people's
trust in a fictitious risk-management agency wasn't diminished when
the agency stated that risk elimination is impossible, compared with
when it claimed that all risk indeed could be eliminated.

Furthermore, Nakayachi reports in a paper scheduled for publication in
the October Risk Analysis, although people highly valued a total
removal of risk, as Tversky and Kahneman found, they put an even
greater premium on a risk reduction that took the first step in
combating a hazard. His results suggest that, contrary to researchers'
assumptions, people don't irrationally respond to their fears about
risk and may be amenable to honest, trust-restoring news from the
agencies charged with the scientific management of risk.

Risk assessment

The question about biology's role in the white male effect and in risk
assessment in general remains open, and it will stay open for a long
time, Sahlin says. In 100 years, he points out, a demographic group
other than white males may have the greatest control of society's risk
factors and therefore will perceive less risk than other groups do. If
the sociologists are right, he says, the white male effect is not

In the past, theories about risk have been prescriptive. They have
assumed that people ought to behave in certain ways based on certain
objective calculations made by experts. The study of risk perception,
however, is descriptive. Under its framework, says Rajeev Gowda, a
political scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, some of
what has previously been termed error in assessing risk or as
differing perceptions accompanying race and sex may simply reflect
people's values in a way that hasn't been recognized before.

From the perspective of risk science's mathematical roots, attempting
to cater to a multitude of viewpoints may be an inefficient way to set
risk-based policies. But, Gowda says, "if people's values say it's OK
to live with some inefficiency, then in a democratic setting we say
'OK," and get on with it."


Regarding this article, the challenge is how to increase the anomalous
risk perceptions of white males. Their low risk perception may lead to
higher use of cigarettes and other addictive drugs, lower use of
condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, driving at unsafe
speeds and while intoxicated, poor eating practices, higher use of
guns, and so on. These behaviors put others at risk and cost society
in insurance premiums, excess medical costs, and more. The risk
observations are not trivial. How can white males be socialized so as
to heighten their risk perceptions and make us all a bit safer and a
bit wealthier? -- Sandy Conners, Starkville, Miss.

This article shows that one of the preeminent centers for the study of
risk has become contaminated with the spores of relativism. Every
person's perception of reality is accepted as equal, and objective
truth is just a tool for oppression by that dominant caste of
exploiters, the white males. Paul Slovic is quoted as saying,
"Defining risk is thus an exercise in power." Years ago, I looked at
Paul Slovic's early work as the first hope for rational policy making
in matters of risk. I'm very disappointed. -- Critz George,
Albuquerque, N.M.


Daly, M., and M. Wilson. 1988. Homicide. New York: A. de Gruyter.

Finucane, M.L., P. Slovic, et al. 2000. Gender, race, and perceived
risk: The "white male" effect. Health, Risk & Society 2(July
1):159-172. Abstract.

Flynn, J., P. Slovic, and C.K. Mertz. 1994. Gender, race, and
perception of environmental health risks. Risk Analysis

Nakayachi, K. 2000. Do people actually pursue risk elimination in
environmental risk management? Risk Analysis 20:705-711.

______. 1988. How do people evaluate risk reduction when they are told
zero risk is impossible? Risk Analysis 18(October):235.

Sheffield, D., et al. 2000. Race and sex differences in cutaneous pain
perception. Psychosomatic Medicine 62(July/August):517-523. Available

Slovic, P. 1999. Trust, emotion, sex, politics, and science: surveying
the risk-assessment battlefield. Risk Analysis 19(August):689.

Tversky, A., and R.H. Thaler. 1990. Anomalies: Preference reversals.
Journal of Economic Perspectives 4:201.

Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. 1981. The framing of decisions and the
psychology of choice. Science 211:453.

Further Readings:

Additional information about the journal Health, Risk & Society can be
found at


Robin Collin
School of Law
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97404

Melissa Finucane
1201 Oak Street
Eugene, OR 97401-3575

M.V. Rejeev Gowda
Department of Political Science
University of Oklahoma
Energy Center S 202
Norman, OK 73019

John D. Graham
Harvard Center for Risk Analysis
718 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115-5924

Kazuya Nakayachi
School of Administration and Informatics
University of Shizuoka
52-1, Yada, Shizouka-shi

Nils-Eric Sahlin
Philosophy Department
Lund University
Box 117, SE-221 00

Paul Slovic
1201 Oak Street
Eugene, OR 97401-3575

Margo Wilson
Department of Psychology
McMaster University
1280 Main Street West
Hamilton, ON L8S 4L8

Copyright 2000 Science Service.