[THE FOUNTAIN] Psychology of Risk-Taking

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[THE FOUNTAIN] Psychology of Risk-Taking

In January 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the pesticide daminozide (trade name Alar), which was mainly used while growing apples, causes tumors. According to the EPA, daminozide may result in an unacceptable risk to public health, causing tumors in one out of 1 million adults and nine out of 1 million children.

Discussing the EPA report, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world's natural resources and ensuring a safe and healthy environment for all, analyzed the data and argued that Alar may cause tumors in one out of 4,200 children under the age of six. The CBS television program "60 Minutes" aired this analysis and the nation erupted into chaos.

However, two months later, "60 Minutes" broadcast counterarguments by experts that the risk reported by the National Resources Defense Council had been exaggerated. Bruce Ames, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that there would be a greater chance to get cancer by driving another mile to buy organic agricultural products.

In an editorial, the famous weekly Science Magazine criticized the National Resources Defense Council, charging that it overly simplified scientific information and that the media abused and propagandized such exaggerated information. In science circles in the United States, the opinion that the hazard of Alar had been exaggerated gained wide predominance. However, people still do not want to eat any agricultural products grown by using Alar.

Let us think about the mad cow disease crisis in South Korea. Although the government and experts did their best to promote the fact that neither cows nor people have contracted mad cow disease in Korea, beef consumption has plunged.

The psychology of risk-taking behavior explains the current phenomenon. According to this psychology, people are ready to take a risk for voluntary activities, such as smoking, driving and skiing. Life-long smoking reduces the average lifespan by 10 years. About 30 people die in traffic accidents every day in South Korea. Uncountable numbers of people break their bones in ski resorts.

However, people react sensitively to risks and hazards that they cannot select. The possible hazard of beef consumption, which may trigger mad cow disease in humans, is one of those risks that they did not select. There will be nothing we can do about the psychology of risk-taking behaviors, and yet if the people trust the government announcement, beef consumption will no longer decrease.

by By Cho Hyun-wook

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