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Two Conceptions of Emotion in Risk Regulation

Do emotions interfere with the rational evaluation of risk? Or is the rational evaluation of risk impossible without the aid of emotion? Drawing on data collected by the Cultural Cognition Project, this paper (published in the University of Pennslyvania Law Review) suggests a revisionist interpretation of recent studies on the centrality of emotion to risk perception.

Recent work in cognitive and social psychology makes it clear that emotion plays a critical role in public perceptions of risk, but doesn't make clear exactly what that role is or why it matters. This paper examines two competing theories of risk perception, which generate two corresponding understandings of emotion and its significance for risk regulation. The “irrational weigher” theory asserts that lay persons’ emotional apprehensions of risk are heuristic substitutes for more reflective judgments, and as such lead to systematic errors. It therefore counsels that risk regulation be assigned to politically insulated experts whose judgments are free of emotion-distorting impact. The “cultural evaluator” theory, in contrast asserts that emotional apprehensions of risk reflect persons’ expressive appraisals of putatively dangerous activities. It implies that emotional apprehensions of risk should at least sometimes be afforded normative weight in law, and also generates distinctive strategies for reconciling sound risk regulation with genuinely participatory, democratic policymaking.

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