Psychological and Socio-Cultural Theories of Risk Essay

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Psychological and Socio-Cultural Theories of Risk

Definition of Risk

The term "risk" is often defined differently depending on the particular paradigm. For example, risk is economics is typically defined in terms of differences in possible monetary outcomes and individuals/corporations involved in risk -- seeking behavior are typically seeking higher monetary payoffs (Markowitz 1952). When clinical psychologists, sociologists, law enforcement officials, and lay individuals identify "risky behaviors" they are referring to a broader meaning of the term "risk." In this context behaviors and involve risk are typically defined as behaviors that can be of potential harm to the person performing them or to other people (Steinberg 2008). In this sense the term "risk" is typically viewed in terms of possible negative outcomes as opposed to some other positive outcome such as the potential monetary gain.

This particular paper will assume that the definition of risky behavior includes some type of a dimension characterized by either a lack of control and/or potential disastrous consequences coupled with an unknown dimension that consists of unfamiliar, delayed, and/or unobservable consequences (Slovic 1987). In this sense risk is a property external to the person/organization that describes a fundamental indeterminism of potential future outcomes. Any decision-making occurring under conditions of risk would incorporate an evaluation of a probability distribution over the potential outcomes that include some type of judgment of the intrinsic value of each potential outcome to the person/organization.

Understanding the perception of risk and risk -- sensitivity is integral to psychological descriptions of decision-making and personality, understanding economic decisions, and understanding choice in terms of sociological and cultural variables (Rothschild and Stiglitz 1971; Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Loewenstein 2001). It would be difficult to discuss the notion of risk without discuss and the motion of choice as well which injects the idea of a volitional or directed selection of a desired action(s) motivated by personal preferences regarding specific outcomes. The challenges brought up by the notion of choice have been the result of major philosophical and scientific debates for centuries (e.g., Aristotle 1998). The notion of choice is generally envisioned as a type of conscious selection process; however, choices need not be the result of conscious decision-making processes as shall be discussed. Thus, risk relates to both the probability of an event happening and the consequences involved in the event and choice varies on whether people focus on the probability or the consequences of the event. It is with these definitions in mind that risk from both psychological and socio-cultural perspectives is discussed.

Psychological Theories of Risk

The earlier psychological theories of risk developed out of psychological models of decision making. The early research in this area is highlighted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky initially began studying how individuals approach gambling tasks and later developed a complex theory of risk of and heuristics and shortcuts in decision-making (see Kahneman 2011). The development of mental heuristics to aid in decision-making helps individuals conserve time and energy; however, the overuse of these heuristics can lead to severe errors in judgment and to what Kahneman and Tversky identified as cognitive biases (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). It is these cognitive biases that have defined much of the current psychological thought regarding decision-making and risk perception/assessment. For instance, Kahneman and Tversky first noticed that the students with whom they performed their research on were very quick to use the most available information to make decisions and determine risks and gambling tasks, even if the information led too poor choices. This led to their identification of the availability heuristic, which basically purports that information that can be easily brought into attentional focus is more likely to be used than information that is not easily brought into one's attention or is easily available (Kahneman 2011). However, due to such issues as the fallibility of memory or seeing things as being related when they are not (illusory correlation) the availability heuristic can become a cognitive bias and result in poor assessment of risk and poor decision-making.

Numerous other mental heuristics have been identified such as the affect heuristic, where people make judgments based on their feelings, is another such heuristic (Slovic et al. 2004) is another example. Overuse of this heuristic can lead to poor decision making and assessment of risk. For example Slovic found that people attributed high benefit and low risk to technologies that they liked and low benefit and high risk to technologies that they disliked (even in cases where there was overwhelming empirical evidence that the particular technology was not beneficial or it was actually dangerous).

Later as a result of numerous findings regarding heuristics and cognitive biases Kahneman and Tversky (1986) developed prospect theory as a method to ascertain how decisions and outcomes are ordered according to certain mental principles. According to prospect theory people edit and then evaluate information to determine risk. When editing people rank expected or potential outcomes according to whether there are benefits or detriments to them. Individuals then determine a reference point as to what would be acceptable and consider lesser outcomes losses and a greater outcomes gains. People have an aversion to loss an attempt to minimize losses over maximizing gains. Utility of the outcome is calculated as a reduction of risk aimed at keeping losses down. While this theory was their influential it was also found a poor number of issues with it and empirical research did not always support its predictions. For example, it was found that people overweigh information that they believe to be certain (certainty effect) and this can affect the assessment of risk in decision-making (Kahneman 2011). Secondly, the influence of demographic factors and societal influences is underplayed in prospect theory. The empirical evidence does not seem to indicate that everyone treats situations as a probabilistic event.

Psychometric research such as mentioned above has identified three major factors associated with how people perceive risk and how risk affects decision making: (1) the degree to which a risk is understood, (2) how much fear or anxiety it produces, and (3) how many people are at risk (the more people the more salient the risk; Kahneman 2011). However, this may not always occur via a conscious logical assessment that takes place in the form of an internal dialogue consisting of self-talk or an external dialogue. The more risky something is perceived the more visceral feelings anxiety and loss of control one experiences. Risks that are unknown evoke feelings of uncertainty. These can lead to implicit decision making.

Social cognition is a well accepted psychological paradigm that addresses how people interpret their environment, make decisions, and explain or justify their behavior (Schneider and Shiffrin 1977). The dual process theory of cognition states that cognitive processes involve in behavior operate on two levels: a slow and controlled process of thinking that allows for reflection and logical thought and a fast automatic implicit process that is generally unconscious and mechanized (Schneider and Shiffrin 1977). In order to develop or alter automatic thought patterns that are driven by procedural structures, schemas, and scripts one would have to invoke the controlled processes that are more prone to use logical, rationality, and reflection.

For example, Payne (2006) addresses a very important issue regarding how decision making and the perception of risk can be affected by implicit cognitive processes such as stereotyping. The inspiration for Payne's analysis is the shooting of a Ghanaian male by four Bronx police offers who mistook his reaching to his pants pocket as a gun threat. Thus, the question is, had the youth been white would the officers have fired on him? The "Weapon Bias" indicates that when having to make quick decisions regarding the presence of a weapon carried by a black or white target people significantly more often identify an object carried by a black person as a weapon. This bias has been demonstrated to emerge even when individuals are explained of its potential effect on their decisions and instructed to try and ignore it.

Payne (2006) explains that several factors drive the weapon bias: (1) a stereotypic factor that links African-Americans to violence and (2) the degree of intentional control people have over their responses. For instance, when not required to make a snap decision the bias is noticeably weaker. The prediction of the bias is best if one knows what the person's automatic response will be under conditions of little control and how likely is it that the person will not have control over their behavior? The key component in the automatic component of the decision is the automatic stereotype activation. There are several lines of evidence to support the bias from behavioral and neuroscience.

Behavioral evidence includes findings that people with more negative racial stereotypes are more likely to display the bias, and time to decide (which can override stereotypes). This appears to be mediated cognitive depletion. Neuroscience has investigated the association between two ERPs and the bias: the error-related negativity (ERN) associated with detecting conflicts between goals and cognitions, P200 associated with emotional reactions…

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