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How safe is safe enough? A psychometric study of attitudes towards technological risks and benefits

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One of the fundamental questions addressed by risk-benefit analysis is “How safe is safe enough?” Chauncey Starr has proposed that economic data be used to reveal patterns of acceptable risk-benefit tradeoffs. The present study investigates an alternative technique, in which psychometric procedures were used to elicit quantitative judgments of perceived risk, acceptable risk, and perceived benefit for each of 30 activities and technologies. The participants were seventy-six members of the League of Women Voters. The results indicated little systematic relationship between perceived existing risks and benefits of the 30 risk items. Current risk levels were generally viewed as unacceptably high. When current risk levels were adjusted to what would be considered acceptable risk levels, however, risk was found to correlate with benefit. Nine descriptive attributes of risk were also studied. These nine attributes seemed to tap two basic dimensions of risk. These dimensions proved to be effective predictors of the tradeoff between acceptable risk and perceived benefit. The limitations of the present study and the relationship between this technique and Starr's technique are discussed, along with the implications of the findings for policy decisions.

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This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant OEP75-20318 to the University of California, Los Angeles under subcontract No. K559081-0 to Oregon Research Institute. We thank Robyn Dawes, Lewis Goldberg, David Okrent, Ola Svenson, and Chris Whipple for comments on an earlier draft. Correspondence and requests for reprints may be addressed to the authors at Decision Research, 1201 Oak Street, Eugene, Oregon 97401, U.S.A.

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Fischhoff, B., Slovic, P., Lichtenstein, S. et al. How safe is safe enough? A psychometric study of attitudes towards technological risks and benefits. Policy Sci 9, 127–152 (1978).

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