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How We Make Decisions for Radiation Safety – Part II

June 20, 2012

Our brains are programmed to protect us in many different ways. In this series of articles, I would like to share some observations drawn from a recent book by David Ropeik, “How Risky is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc. 2010 (Amazon – $13.60).

Programmed Fears and Flaws for Dealing with Radiation

Some fears seem natural or common to most everyone, such as fear of the dark, snakes, spiders, heights, closed spaces, and being underwater. Other fears include public speaking, fear of intimacy, and fear of failure or social rejection. These fears are also about survival because we have learned to rely on others to protect us. Our sensory system and amygdala are constantly scanning for signs of danger and quickly leap to action at the first hint. The amygdala takes control immediately with a fear response which overrides any conscious decisions for safety. We do not want to wait for the slow processes of our conscious mind to evaluate whether a snake represents a danger before we take evasive action. While fast action for safety is an appropriate response to a striking snake, this process does not do well when considering issues such as safety of radiation.

Our programmed fear response does not know what to do with radiation which is not naturally programmed into our alert system. We are not born with an instinctive response to avoid dangers of radiation. However, many, or even most people today, have an instinctive automatic aversion to radiation. The question then is, “How have people come to program radiation into their subconscious automatic response system for safety?” Ropeik says that other parts of our subconscious mind have evolved to allow us to process information and make quick judgments for our protection when dangers, such as radiation, are not already programmed into our instinctive response systems.

Bounded Rationality

Ropeik describes Bounded Rationality as our approach to making fast decisions when we do not have all the data, time to acquire more data, or the intellectual ability to process the data. Ropeik shows that we are constantly making fast judgments without perfect knowledge, but doing the best that we can at the time. We process, sort, compare, categorize, and analyze information in relation to our immediate circumstances, experiences, and life factors, such as health, wealth, traditions, and lifestyles. With all these inputs we can come up with instant judgments. Such quick judgments are crucial to our survival. However, because they are based on limited information, these decisions may not always be best for us in the long run.

Instant judgments, while an important function for our protection and survival, may lead to decisions for radiation safety that go beyond what may be warranted by the actual circumstances. First responders to a radiation event have been known to call for evacuation on the basis of very limited or no information. Such decisions for radiation safety may be justified on the “precautionary principle,” better to be safe than sorry. Although evacuation may be very disruptive and even costly, many responders could conclude that cost is not an issue for possibly saving someone’s life. Some responders may equate exposure to radiation to events like large forest fires where lives may be imminently at risk. They often do not understand that in virtually any radiation event, the greatest risk would be a potential future random chance of health effects.

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