Risk perception refers to how a person perceives the risk associated with a specific activity or event. Just about every activity, from grocery shopping to skydiving, has some type of risk associated with it. Most people weigh the potential for danger against the benefits of the activity and decide whether to go through with it. Risk perception is highly subjective, with each person making their own decision about the potential danger involved in various activities.
Large, life-altering decisions rely heavily on risk perception. For example, a couple deciding to try to have another baby after a miscarriage often weighs the risk of losing that baby against the potential benefits of another pregnancy. If the couple decides that the chances of a happy ending are higher than the risk of losing the baby, they may determine that it is safe to proceed with their plans.
People also make minor decisions based on risk perception every day. These small decisions include deciding the best moment to merge into traffic or choosing a lunch based on foods that haven’t caused the diner to suffer from indigestion in the past. Most people make their decisions without giving it much thought, or base those decisions on routines that have worked well for them in the past. For example, a diner choosing her lunch may get the same thing every day, or have a limited selection from which she chooses. She already knows that none of those selections are likely to disagree with her, so she perceives their risk to her gastrointestinal tract as minor.
In some cases, a person’s risk perception can be skewed by life events, making him or her believe that something is far riskier than statistics indicate it is. For example, statistically speaking, most planes make it to their destination without crashing. Those who have lost a loved one in a plane crash, however, overestimate the risk involved in flying and may develop a phobia about using that mode of transportation.
Psychological disorders can also play a role in altering risk perception. Someone with anxiety disorder may overestimate the risk associated with everyday tasks, such as driving to work or giving an important presentation in front of a group of colleagues. Other disorders can cause affected individuals to underestimate the risk of an activity. Drugs and alcohol can also significantly impact the user’s ability to properly assess risk. Alcohol, for example, tends to lower inhibitions and allows drinkers to believe they are less susceptible to harm.