Skip to content

How Do We View Risks

PEOPLE’S perceptions of threats can be influenced by what they have seen most recently in the news or in real life, according to a new study on emotion perception. This phenomenon, which the authors call “immediacy bias,” occurs because immediate emotions, or emotions being experienced in the here and now, hold more influence over a person than a remembered emotion or cold facts.

The researchers conducting the study provided the subjects of their experiment with U.S. Department of Homeland Security travel advisories about Bali and Kenya. The advisories contained detailed information about terrorist threat warnings. Most subjects classified the location they last read about as the greater threat, regardless of whether the facts bore that out.

Researchers’ conclusions about why immediacy bias exists vary. One is that immediate emotions are more salient, which can make them seem more intense. Another is that current emotional information is more cognitively available than information about previous emotions, which again may make that current emotion seem more intense, according to the study.

The condition is temporary, however. Researchers found that after a day, the immediacy bias had worn off, and there was no significant difference in the subjects’ views of the threats at each location.

Leaf Van Boven, one of the study’s authors and a University of Colorado psychology professor, says this work has real-world implications. Press coverage of terrorist attacks abroad, for example, might cause people to have a heightened fear of terrorist attacks at home that may not be in line with the facts. It may also cause resources to be deferred from issues that are less emotional and not grabbing current headlines.

Says Van Boven: “People have evolved these reactions to risks and to threats in a kind of evolutionary old environment where responding to what is immediately in front of you makes a lot of sense. As we become richer in the information landscape, that response to threat makes less sense, because we are exposed to threats that we’re not directly facing.”

Ellen Peters, senior research scientist at Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon, says that the immediacy bias pointed out by Van Boven and his coauthors might be reflected in the way a layperson perceives risk versus an expert’s perception of it. The expert might have more information about the risk as well as more experience dealing with it and mitigating it. She adds: “As a result of having that more complete package of information, [the expert] might be experiencing less emotion than a layperson.”

Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says that it is important that people, including legislators, understand how such biases work so that they do not let such phenomena irrationally influence decision making.

The media’s choice of what stories to cover is an obvious factor in creating an immediacy bias among the public. The media itself is not immune to such emotions, however, and may be making those choices in response to their own immediacy biases, Acquisti points out. That can lead to the echo chamber effect, where a story gets play, then gets more play because other media are responding to the earlier coverage they saw.

There are many biases that influence risk perception. Some are emotional like the immediacy bias; others include cognitive biases related to information processing, and social biases.

Van Boven’s study was coauthored by Michaela Huber of the University of Colorado and Katherine White at the University of Calgary and funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. It was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Van Boven is taking the work a step further and is now looking at how immediate emotions distort perceptions of human suffering and willingness to provide military or humanitarian aid. He says the researchers are finding similar patterns in that, “whatever happens to arouse immediate emotion is seen as more deserving of humanitarian and military attention.”