The perceiver’s social role and a risk’s causal structure as determinants of environmental risk evaluation
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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We present a dual-process risk perception model that integrates cognitive and emotional as well as consequentialist and deontological components by distinguishing between two modes of evaluative processing: (a) a consequentialist evaluation that focuses on potential consequences and (b) a deontological evaluation that focuses on moral values. Each of these two modes is assumed to trigger specific cognitive evaluations, specific emotions, and specific behavioral tendencies concerning a perceived risk. We conducted an experiment (N = 270) that tested whether the relative dominance of the two evaluative modes would depend on the causal structure of the environmental risk being evaluated and on the social role of the evaluator. Three types of causal structure were varied by providing scenario information: (a) anthropogenic risks that endanger only nature, (b) naturally caused risks with potential harmful consequences for humans, and (c) anthropogenic risks that may harm humans. Participants evaluated each scenario from the perspective of one of three social roles: mayor, expecting parent, and environmental activist. For each scenario, participants specified their focus and evaluated the event’s morality and perceived risk, the intensity of specific emotions, and their preferences for prospective behaviors. Results showed that the consequentialist evaluation was generally stronger than the deontological evaluation and was less affected by the experimental manipulations. The deontological evaluation was substantially affected by the risk’s causal structure. It was stronger for anthropogenic than for natural causation; risks caused by humans were associated with greater perceived moral blameworthiness, more intense morality-based emotions (e.g. outrage), and a stronger tendency to perform agent-related behaviors (e.g. aggression) than naturally occurring risks. The effect of the social role was less pronounced than that of the causal structure. Furthermore, the effect of an evaluative focus on behavior was fully mediated by emotions for deontological evaluations and partially mediated for consequentialist evaluations. The implications for environmental risk perception and communication are discussed.