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Scientists of science communication Profile #3: Ellen Peters

This is 2d installment in this series (actually, I'm negotiating w/ several companies that saw the last post & want to produce "Scientists of science communication trading cards"!)

 3. Ellen Peters.

Peters, a social psychologist at the Ohio State University, is a leading scholar of risk perception. A(nother) student of Paul Slovic, Peters's specialty (I'd say) is detecting how diverse cognitive mechanisms relate to one another.  E.g., she has done important studies establishing that "affect"--itself (Slovic and others show) a central element of myriad risk-perception heuristics--is mediator of cultural worldviews, which determine the valence (positive or negative) of affective responses, thereby generating individual differences in risk perception.

Recently, Peters has been engaged in pathbreaking work on numeracywhich refers to the capacity (disposition, really) to make sense of quantitative information and engage in quantitative reasoning. The important -- indeed, startling -- insight of her work there is that numeracy and affect are complimentary mental processes. That is, affect, rather than being a heuristic substitute for numeracy, is in fact a perceptive faculty calibrated by, and integral to the employment of quantitative reasoning. High numeracy individuals, her experiments show, do not rely on affect less than low numeracy ones but rather experience it in a more reliably discerning fashion when evaluating the expected value of opportunities for gain and loss. Numeracy, it would appear, effectively "trains" affect, which thereafter operates as an efficient scout, telling a person when he or she should engage in more effortful quantitative processing; people low in numeracy are distinguished not by greater reliance on affect, but by inchoate, confused affect.

This is a very different picture, I'd say, from the (now) dominant "system 1/system 2" conception of dual process reasoning. That framework envisions a discrete and hierarchical relationship between unconscious, affective forms of reasoning (System 1) and conscious, algorithmic ones (System 2). Peters's work, in contrast, suggests that affect and numeracy are integrated and reciprocal--that each operates on the other and that together they make complimentary contributions to sound decisionmaking.

Interestingly, though, people with high numeracy can also experience distinctive kinds of biasE.g., they will rate transactions that offer a high probability of substantial gain versus a low probability of a small loss as more attractive than transactions that offer a high probability of substantial gain versus a small probability of an outcome involving no change (positive or negative) in welfare. The reason is that the contrast between a high probability of gain and small probability of loss is more affectively arousing than the contrast between high probability of gain and nothing. But you actually have to be pretty good with numbers to receive this false affective signal! In other words, there are some kinds of attractive specious inferences that presuppose fairly high quantitative reasoning capacity.

Some key readings:

1. Peters, E. The Functions of Affect in the Construction of Preferences. in The construction of preference (eds. Lichtenstein, S. & Slovic, P.) 454-463 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York, 2006).

2. Peters, E., Dieckmann, N., Västfjäll, D., Mertz, C.K. & Slovic, P. Bringing meaning to numbers: The impact of evaluative categories on decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 15, 213-227 (2009).
3. Peters, E. & Levin, I.P. Dissecting the risky-choice framing effect: Numeracy as an individual-difference factor in weighting risky and riskless options. Judgment and Decision Making 3, 435-448 (2008).


4. Peters, E., Slovic, P. & Gregory, R. The role of affect in the WTA/WTP disparity. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 16, 309-330 (2003).

5. Peters, E., et al. Intuitive numbers guide decisions. Judgment and Decision Making 3, 619-635 (2008).

6. Peters, E., et al. Numeracy and Decision Making. Psychol Sci 17, 407-413 (2006).

7. Peters, E.M., Burraston, B. & Mertz, C.K. An Emotion-Based Model of Risk Perception and Stigma Susceptibility: Cognitive Appraisals of Emotion, Affective Reactivity, Worldviews, and Risk Perceptions in the Generation of Technological Stigma. Risk Analysis 24, 1349-1367 (2004).

8. Slovic, P., Finucane, M.L., Peters, E. & MacGregor, D.G. Risk as Analysis and Risk as Feelings: Some Thoughts About Affect, Reason, Risk, and Rationality. Risk Analysis 24, 311-322 (2004).

 9. Slovic, P. & Peters, E. The importance of worldviews in risk perception Risk Decision and Policy 3, 165-170 (1998).

10. Peters, E. & Slovic, P. Affective asynchrony and the measurement of the affective attitude component. Cognition Emotion 21, 300-329 (2007).


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