How do People Judge Risk? Availability may Upstage Affect in the Construction of Risk Judgments


Abstract When making risk judgments, people rely on availability and affect as convenient heuristics. The two heuristics share many similarities and yet there have been no or few attempts to ascertain their causal impact on risk judgments. We present an experiment ( N = 143) where we varied availability‐by‐recall (thinking of less or more occurrences of someone from one’s social network dying) and the affective impact of certain risks (using images). We found that availability‐by‐recall had a stronger impact in constructing risk judgments. Asking people to think of more occurrences led to higher judgments of mortality and higher values placed on a single life, irrespective of changes in affect, risk media coverage, and retrieval time. Affect, however, was not disregarded. Our data suggest a causal mechanism where the retrieval of occurrences leads to changes in affect, which in turn, impact risk judgments. These findings increase understanding of how risk judgments are constructed with the potential to impact risk communication through direct manipulations of availability and affect. We discuss these and other implications of our findings.

Risk Analysis

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