Priorities for Preventive Action: Explaining Americans’ Divergent Reactions to 100 Public Risks

AJPS Author Summary of “Priorities for Preventive Action: Explaining Americans’ Divergent Reactions to 100 Public Risks” by Jeffrey A. Friedman

Priorities for Preventive Action: Explaining Americans’ Divergent Reactions to 100 Public Risks

The U.S. government spends over $100 billion per year fighting terrorism, a risk that kills about as many Americans as lightning strikes and accidents involving home appliances. President Trump has said that one of his primary objectives is reducing violent crime, even though this problem is at historic lows nationwide. Meanwhile, the looming threat of climate change could cause vast global harm. Extreme weather induced by global warming may already kill more Americans than terrorists do, yet preventing climate change consistently ranks near the bottom of voters’ policy priorities.

What explains Americans’ divergent reactions to risk? In particular, why do Americans’ priorities for reducing risk often seem so uncorrelated with the danger that those risks objectively present? Many scholars believe the answer to this question is that heuristics, biases, and ignorance cause voters to misperceive risk magnitudes. By contrast, I argue in a forthcoming AJPS article that Americans’ risk priorities reflect value judgments regarding the extent to which some victims deserve more protection than others and the degree to which it is appropriate for government to intervene in different areas of social life.

The paper backs this argument with evidence drawn from a survey of 3,000 Americans, using pairwise comparisons to elicit novel measures of how respondents perceive nine dimensions of 100 life-threatening risks. Unlike many studies which focus on understanding which risks “worry” or “concern” respondents to greater degrees, this survey explicitly distinguished between respondents’ perceptions of how much harm risks caused and respondents’ preferences for how much money the government should spend to mitigate these dangers. This survey produced two main findings.

First, the data show that respondents were well-informed about which risks cause more harm than others. The correlation between perceived and actual mortality across the 100 risks in the study was 0.82 – not perfect, but a far cry from voters’ limited grasp on other kinds of politically-relevant information. The data also show that respondents’ perceptions of how much harm risks cause explained little variation in their policy preferences relative to value judgments about the status of victims and the appropriate role of government. Both of these findings hold regardless of political party, education, and other demographics.

For example, even though respondents assigned terrorism the third-highest priority among risks covered by the survey, they did not see this problem as being particularly deadly. On this measure, terrorism ranked 51st out of 100 risks, around the same level as bicycle accidents and tornadoes. Instead, respondents said that terrorism was exceptionally unfair to its victims (ranked #2, behind only child abuse) and that governments have special obligations to protect citizens from this danger (again #2, behind only nuclear war). This reflects a broader pattern seen throughout the survey data: the main reason that voters support spending government funds to reduce risks is not because they think these problems are especially common, but because they say these problems are especially objectionable.

It is important to take these subjective beliefs seriously both in scholarly analyses and in policy debates. When people disagree in setting policy priorities, they often attribute their opponents’ positions to ignorance or misinformation. Thus many Democrats accuse Republicans of exaggerating the risk of terrorism while downplaying the threat of climate change. Republicans, for their part, often accuse Democrats of inflating the risk of gun violence while ignoring threats to national security. But my study indicates that Republicans and Democrats both hold relatively accurate perceptions of which risks cause more harm than others, and that neither party affords those judgments much weight when considering how to allocate public resources. The key to productive discourse on these issues thus likely lies with understanding voters’ values rather than contesting their factual beliefs.

The article also provides foundations for exploring how public opinion shapes government spending. In some cases – as with terrorism – federal expenditures appear to reflect voters’ demands. But that correlation is imperfect. Cancer and heart disease were the top two policy priorities for this survey’s respondents. Air pollution placed sixth. Warfare ranked 24th on respondents’ risk-reduction priorities, beneath prescription drug abuse, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Thus to the extent that the U.S. defense budget crowds out government spending on health care, that does not appear to be a straightforward function of voters’ policy preferences. The article is therefore relevant not just to understanding the public’s risk priorities in their own right, but also for analyzing how and why the federal budget reflects some of these priorities more than others.

About the Author: Jeffrey A. Friedman is an Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and is also Visiting Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. Friedman’s research “Priorities for Preventive Action: Explaining Americans’ Divergent Reactions to 100 Public Risks (” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.





Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.