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Optimism and the perceptions of new risks

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While many risks, especially new ones, are not objectively quantifiable, individuals still form perceptions of risks using incomplete or unclear evidence about the true nature of those risks. In the case of well known risks, such as smoking, individuals perceive risks to be smaller for themselves than others, exhibiting 'optimism bias'. Although existing evidence supports optimism bias occurring in the case of risks about which individuals are familiar, evidence does not yet exist to suggest that optimism bias applies for new risks. This paper addresses this question by examining the gap in perceptions of risks individuals have for themselves versus society and the environment, conceptualised as social and/or environmental optimism biases. We draw upon the 2002 UEA-MORI Risk Survey to examine the existence of optimism bias and its effects on risk perceptions and acceptance regarding five science and technology-related topics: climate change, mobile phones, radioactive waste, GM food and genetic testing. Our findings provide evidence of social and environmental optimism bias following similar patterns and optimism bias appearing greater for those risks bringing sizeable benefit to individuals (e.g. mobile phone radiation) rather than those more acutely affecting society or the environment (e.g. GM food or climate change). Social optimism bias is found to reduce risk perceptions for risks that have received large amounts of media attention, namely, climate change and GM food. On the other hand, optimism bias appears to increase risk perceptions about genetic testing.

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