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

Jeffrey A. Friedman


Why do Americans’ priorities for combating risks like terrorism, climate change, and violent crime often seem so uncorrelated with the dangers 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, this article argues that Americans’ risk priorities primarily reflect judgments about 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 article supports this argument with evidence drawn from a survey with 3,000 respondents, using pairwise comparisons to elicit novel measures of how respondents perceive nine dimensions of 100 life-threatening risks. Respondents were well informed about these risks’ relative magnitudes—the correlation between perceived and actual mortality was .82—but those perceptions explained relatively little variation in policy preferences relative to judgments about the status of victims and the appropriate role of government. These findings hold regardless of political party, education, and other demographics. The article thus argues that the key to understanding Americans’ divergent reactions to risk lies more with their values than with their grasp of factual information.

Published in

American Journal of Political Science, vol. 63, n. 1, January 2019, pp. 181–196