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How We Make Decisions for Radiation Safety – Part IV

July 11, 2012

This week we will continue sharing insights from the book by Daniel Kahneman (Noble Prize in Economics), “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2011.

Conflict of Systems for Radiation Risk Decisions

Our subconscious mind (System 1) functions continuously whether we are awake or asleep and is ever on the alert for signs of danger. Most of the time even when we are awake, our conscious mind (System 2) functions at a low level of effort using only a small fraction of our thinking capacity. System 1 routinely generates suggestions for System 2 such as impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If accepted by System 2, these impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs and impulses which turn into voluntary actions. Thus, we normally believe our impressions and act accordingly for safety decisions. System 1 is usually very good at what it does, its models of situations and short term predictions of possible danger are accurate, and its initial reactions are swift and generally appropriate. System 1 predictions of radiation risks, however, may be far from appropriate for the circumstances. Since System 2 relies on sensory input to warn of dangers, and radiation provides no information for our senses, then System 2 has to rely on impressions from System 1. Unfortunately, System 1 impressions may come from mythology perpetuated by the media and images of unacceptable consequences that could result from radiation exposures. Such impressions may have no relevance to technical reality as understood by specialists in radiation safety.

Since System 1 operates automatically and cannot be turned off, errors of intuition and impressions may be difficult to prevent. Biases cannot be avoided because System 1 has no clue to errors in radiation risk decisions. Even if cues to errors in response to radiation risks are evident, such errors can only be prevented by concentrated monitoring and significant effort by System 2. Thus, when a responder instinctively decides to run in response to a screaming Geiger counter, reversing that decision requires considerable effort on the part of System 2. Our conscious minds (System 2) are not intended to constantly monitor the decisions of System 1. System 2 is much too slow and inefficient for most routine decisions for safety. Do we want to slowly analyze the potential of a striking snake before instinctively jumping back? In the mind of a first responder, running will seem like an appropriate response to a radiation signal.

Fear First – Think Second

Our minds are programmed from infancy to fear first and think second. Our subconscious mind is aware of signs of danger long before we have any conscious awareness. Our System 1 quickly reacts with a fear response for our safety. The emotion of fear plays a big part in intuitive judgments and decisions for safety. Lack of specific data for evaluation of a radiation risk is no deterrent to the normal functioning of System 1. Our subconscious mind, which never forgets anything, will quickly search for all associated memories of radiation stories from the past and respond accordingly without regard to actual circumstances. Because of the common media practice of reporting stories of “deadly radiation” those words will likely come up immediately from a memory search and lead to a quick decision to run.

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