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Risk and Reason

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Risk and Reason

Safety, Law and the Environment

Cambridge UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

When people misread a risk’s real threat level, the solutions are often riskier and costlier than the problem.

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Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Well Structured
  • Concrete Examples


Although this excellent book largely concerns government policy-making, the introductory chapters are must-reading for everyone who reads newspapers, watches television, participates in the political process or ventures an opinion on health risks, environmental risks or other risks. Author Cass R. Sunstein shows that most people view risk through a grossly distorted lens. People often see small risks as big and big risks as small, and they often advocate solutions whose risks are even greater than those of the problems they purport to solve. Democracies are particularly susceptible to costly, dangerous missteps caused by a flawed view of risk, so citizens must understand what they are doing when they demand regulation or freedom from regulation. Sunstein’s approach to cost-benefit analysis suggests that it can help people agree on practices, even if they disagree on principles. getAbstract recommends this must-read book, despite the somewhat dry and legalistic nature of the latter chapters. If you do not care to follow the workings of the Environmental Protection Agency in as much detail as the author, read the early and concluding chapters to derive much of the book’s value.


Misunderstanding Risk

In 2002, sniper attacks caused panic in Washington, DC. The schools cancelled outdoor activities and ball games, some people stayed away from their health clubs if the buildings had windows through which a sniper might shoot, others purchased body armor and restaurants even eliminated outdoor seating. Yet the panic was grossly out of proportion to the risk.

Assuming that 5,000,000 people in the area might have been at risk, and assuming the snipers planned to shoot one target every three days, the daily risk to anyone would have been about one in a million. To put that in perspective, 30 cans of diet soda containing saccharine, 100 miles of driving, two cigarettes, 35 slices of bread or ten airline trips each present a greater statistical likelihood of harm.

The Washington snipers exploited a weakness in the way people think and feel about risk, as terrorists often do. The public’s unreasoning approach to risk is precisely why terrorism is an effective weapon.

Two factors drive much of the hysteria we see around us:

  • The availability heuristic – This psychological term describes the fact that people think an event ...

About the Author

Cass R. Sunstein is the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. His most recent books are and Designing Democracy. His many awards include the Goldsmith Book prize and, three times, the award for the best scholarship in administrative law from the American Bar Association. He contributes frequently to the New Republic and The New York Times.

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