The world health report

Chapter 3


Influences on risk perceptions

Two important factors that influence risk perception are gender and world views, with affiliation, emotional affect and trust also being strongly correlated with the risk judgements of experts as well as lay persons. The influence of gender has been well documented, with men tending to judge risks as smaller and less problematic than do women. Explanations have focused mainly on biological and social factors. For example, it has been suggested that women are more socialized to care for human health and are less likely to be familiar with science and technology. However, female toxicologists were found to judge the same risks as higher than do male toxicologists (22,23). In another study dealing with perception of 25 hazards, males produced risk-perception ratings that were consistently much lower than those of females (24). To the extent that sociopolitical factors shape public perception of risks, gender differences appear to have an important effect on interpreting risks.

The influence of social, psychological and political factors can also be seen in studies on the impact of world views on risk judgements. World views are general social, cultural and political attitudes that appear to have an influence over people's judgements about complex issues (25). World views include feelings such as fatalism towards control over risks to health, belief in hierarchy and leaving decisions to the experts, and a conviction that individualism is an important characteristic of a fair society, or that technological developments are important for improving our health and social well-being. These world views have been found to be strongly linked to public perceptions of risk (26). These views have also been the subject of a few international studies, for example comparing perceptions of risks to nuclear power in the USA with those in other industrialized countries (27).