Physical Risk vs. Perceived Risk: Explaining the TSA Backlash

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Radiation, invasion of privacy, skepticism over utility, plain old unfairness — informed by complacency about the risk of terrorism, the reasons for the public’s outcry against the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) screening measures are many. That response can be well explained by the psychology of how people perceive risks — which the government should have paid more attention to from the start.

TIME asked David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts, to explain.

Why Risk Is Subjective
By David Ropeik

Has government gone too far when, to justify keeping citizens safe, it legalizes airport pat downs so intimate that after the examiner is done he doesn’t have to ask whether that’s a pistol in your pocket or you’re just glad to see him? Or are citizens going too far by refusing to stand for being X-rayed or patted down, and raising the risk we’ll be blown up? (More on Time.com: How to Get Your Kid Through the TSA ‘Pat-Down’ With Little Trauma)

When does “protection” go too far? When does it fail to go far enough? And how do we set that line, with this or any risk?

Risk assessors and Cartesian rationalists would have you believe that we can reason our way to the “right” answer here. If the risk of a terrorist act is x, then airport security measures must be ramped up to y. The problem with taking that approach to the risk of bad guys trying to bomb airplanes — or any risk, really — is that there is no single right answer. Why? Because risk; (n., the probability that something bad will happen) is subjective. Probability may be calculable, but bad is a Gordian knot of the facts and how those facts are perceived — how bad they feel.

Our cortical reasoning about risk and our gut reaction to it are inseparable. Further, personal risk assessment (“Is scanner radiation bad for me?”) and societal risk assessment by government technocrats (“Will the new security measures increase U.S. population safety on the whole?) are two different things, and we are now watching the conflict play out with the controversy over the TSA’s airport security measures. There are lessons to be learned. (More on Time.com: TSA Outrage: Would You Rather Get Screened or Blown Up?)

Last Christmas after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite a bomb in his underwear on a plane carrying 289 people to Detroit, we asked why the government hadn’t already instituted the whole-body scanners and pat downs that could have caught Abdulmutallab before he got on the plane. They weren’t in place, in part, because we had grown complacent. It had been years since we’d seen terrorists turn a commercial plane into fiery death. This is still true today — even more so. Time, and the repeated failures of the bombers, have eased our fears. A Washington Post–ABC poll released Tuesday found that only 30% of us are worried about terrorism against air travel, as low as it’s been since 9/11.

Into this complacent atmosphere, the government has finally put the scanners and pat downs in place. But these security tradeoffs carry their own emotional baggage: If you want to fly, you must subject yourself either to radiation, which triggers a lot of emotional risk-perception alarms all by itself, or to a groping. Never mind the fact that the scanners’ radiation dose is lower than the amount of cosmic radiation you’ll get in just a few minutes on the flight you’re taking. That radiation exposure is voluntary. The exposure in the scanner is required, involuntary — as is the pat down. Imposed risk always feels greater. (More on Time.com: Should We Worry About Radiation Exposure From New Airport Scanners?)

The TSA could have, should have seen this coming. It should have anticipated the public’s complacency about the bombing risk, and the predictable emotional resistance to the imposed risk of radiation and intimate physical pat downs. TSA officials say now they are looking for ways to adjust the system to respond to public concerns — resetting the line to respect our feelings, while maintaining safety. That will be a lot harder now than it could have been, given how the agency has handled things so far.

Clearly, it would have been smoother for everybody, and more efficient for security, if the TSA had taken the public’s perception of risk into account before rolling out the new scanners and pat down procedures. Whatever the true danger, in cases like this, what matters is how that risk feels to the public — in the end, perhaps risk perception, as much as the physical risk itself, determines where people will accept the line between protection that’s enough and protection that’s too much. Any government agency that makes risk management policy should take notice.

David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts

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