Risky Business

By Rachel Revelle

Are you a risk taker? Do you perceive the risks around you on a day to day basis?  Are you compliant when told to take precautions because of certain risks?  My mother was recently relating the story that when she told my brother as a pre-teen that he had to wear a helmet or he could not ride his bicycle, he chose to stop riding his bicycle! The perceived risk for most of the neighborhood kids was the embarrassment of wearing a helmet, rather than the danger of a bike accident, and we responded accordingly.  Now, in a different set of circumstances, my brother is an avid cyclist living in Carrboro, and never goes without a helmet.  There is both the greater risk involved—heavier traffic combined with higher speeds—as well as reinforcing social pressure that now makes the helmet an easy choice.

People respond in funny ways to risks, and while it may not always be rational, it’s certainly something to pay attention to.  One interesting phenomenon is that people’s perception of risk changes dramatically once an event has occurred to actualize the risk.  We already have a bad sense of probability, and we are easily influenced by experience and emotion. When the actualized risk is a large public phenomenon, suddenly there is much more talk of “best practices,” and our experience and emotion can play into that. How much does regulatory governance respond to this public reaction? Do we sometimes overreact in ways that can negatively affect the economy and society? At other times do we underreact?

On a broad scale, this is the phenomenon being explored in a new book project by the Rethinking Regulation program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.  Recalibrating Risk (the working title of the book) will look at three sets of disasters—oil spills, nuclear explosions, and financial crises—and examine how regulation in these areas is affected by perceptions of risk over time and in different places.  A set of international authors from different fields (Political Science, Sociology, Environmental Science, Psychology) will ask and answer questions about how reactions to events affect policy.

The Recalibrating Risk book project is an example of how the Rethinking Regulation group brings together different conceptual frameworks for regulatory practices. The core of the Rethinking Regulation project is a group of faculty and graduate students from Duke, UNC, and NCSU who meet monthly to share their work, discuss papers, and brainstorm ideas.  The ideas generated are strengthened by the perspectives of faculty who come from multiple disciplines.    They also hold occasional public events, offer grants for graduate research related to the analysis of regulatory governance, and are developing more course opportunities related to regulation.

This research area touches on so many practical issues in our society.  I am very excited to see what this group of experts will have to say about topics on the American consciousness like the 2008 financial crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, how they will draw in the lessons of both history and other geographic areas, and what ideas they might have for future risk events.

In other news: I’m also looking forward to an upcoming public event hosted by the Rethinking Regulation program, a talk on October 24 entitled “Regulating the Regulators: A Conversation with Former OIRA Administrators.” Sally Katzen and John Graham were both administrators of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but from the Clinton and Bush administrations, respectively.  What do you think?  Will they discuss drastically different notions of regulatory policy making based on their relative administrations?  I’m guessing their overarching goals were more similar than political rhetoric would make it seem.