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The human perception of risk is generally accepted to be flawed. But how could evolution have prepared humans to live in a world which has been largely modified by humans themselves in the last few hundred years? How do we now perceive risk, especially rare risk, and respond to it with appropriate and balanced behavior?

Carolyn Kousky Carolyn Kousky, a doctoral Research Fellow, Center for International Development, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, spoke today at Barrows hall here on UC Berkeley campus. She has been doing research on human perception of risk by studying the flood of 1993 in Saint Louis county of Missouri and its effects on the perceptions of people living in that area. Her method was to track something solid and measurable for this seemingly impossible to study, emotionally charged and highly subjective thing—the human perception of risk. She accomplished this by measuring the price change of a very large number of real estate values before and after the serious flood of 1993 that devastated a large area of Saint Louis county.

Mississippi floods of 1993.

The home owners had been informed that they lived in a flood prone area by risk maps prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers, but those people chose to take the risk, and owned homes there. One finding, unexpected by me, was that perceived risk was influenced not only by their local risk factors, but also by news reports of devastation taking place elsewhere. Other people’s rare-risks actually coming to pass caused these people to consider their personal rare-risk as more likely to happen. The implication would be that the Katrina hurricane which caused devastation in New Orleans, hundreds of miles away would  cause the price of housing in those flood prone portions of Saint Louis county to jump more than in the non-flood prone areas. She didn’t say this but it would be an interesting assumption to test.

I appreciated the fact that she presented her research methods, and findings, in a dispassionate, and non-partisan way as a research scientist should—and did not bias the lecture with partisan spin as most of the other speakers here in Berkeley have done. Some of those other people were in the audience, and asked questions which tried in a vaguely partisan way to spin the data about the Army Corps of Engineers failing to build dikes properly but Kousky responded quite well, I believe, with substantive data rather than spin. As I have been contending all week on this blog political spin colors a scientist’s perceptions, and degrades the value of their research. In something as potentially subjective as this risk study even a little bit of perceptual distortion would totally destroy its validity. Kousky is to be commended for her objectivity.