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Values – Subjective Emotion, Public Outrage, NIMBY
The focus of the immediately preceding section was on understanding value determinations from what was described as an objective context. Value was framed in this objective context through risk assessment, and the process of assessing risk included more objectively based inputs, although not all of the inputs used in the analysis are objectively determined. In this section we move our focus to understanding the subjective context for understanding values; what factors influence human decision-making, and what is it about those factors that define them as more subjective than what was studied in the previous section. In addition, we will try and understand the influence these subjective factors play in how humans perceive risk as a proxy for value, and how those perceptions influence environmental policy directions.
B. A Note on Learning Dynamics – How Beliefs Come to Be
As you review the materials presented in this section, you will note the importance of what we might call belief systems, including the process by which humans develop a well-founded belief on a topic.1 For our purposes here the importance lies in connecting forms of learning to strongly held beliefs as these beliefs can underlie the impact a proposed policy direction has on members of the public (if we are considering public support as an important component of furthering public policy directions, which of course it is). In the introductory part of the text on the values chapter, you are introduced to the concept of heuristics, or belief systems. The example provided in a footnote from Judith Layzer of Harvard is on the association of heuristics and determination of risk. Layzer notes that association with a risk can factor into how a person feels about a risk; the more experience one has with a risk, the less ‘risky’ they feel about the risk. The example provided is household pest control devices. Most of these sprays include very dangerous chemicals that pose an objective risk to human health. However, people who become accustomed to having the spray in their homes tend to discount the objective risk based on their experience with the product; the more experience they have with the product, the less ‘risk’ they perceive with the product. Note the actual objective risk has not changed, but the subjective perception of risk has changed. The question entertained here is whether an objective risk becomes less ‘risky’ simply because the public, through
Learning dynamics is covered in greater detail in the following section on scaling of values.
experience, perceives a lower risk? This question is really at the heart of subjective values and their influence on environmental policy. To place the idea of perceptions of risk into context, I want to take a moment now and summarize two categories of learning dynamics, even though this subject will be taken up in greater detail in the next section. The two categories are as follows: • Reinforcement Learning: Reinforcement learning is, in most cases, learning by experience. In Layzer’s example above regarding household pest spray, the idea of being accustomed to something in this context is really based on experience. Prior experiences aggregate over time. When those experiences lead to a similar outcome that is repeated again-and-again, an expectation forms suggesting that outcome should occur in the future. If the outcome is positive, then we tend to form a positive belief (if the pesticide never harms a person in the home, then it is ‘seen’ as safe). If the outcome is negative, then we tend to form a negative belief (if the pesticide harms a person in the home, then it is seen as unsafe). Belief Learning. Belief learning, in the context provided here, is meant to refer to learning that occurs in relation to an accepted belief.2 Rather than allowing experience to form the belief itself (as in reinforcement learning above), the belief is a foundational principle and experiences help to place that belief into perspective. For strongly held beliefs (unshakeable beliefs), experiences will tend to be viewed in a light that most likely complements the belief system. For less strongly held beliefs, an event counter to the belief may alter the underlying belief. If a number of events occur that contrast with the belief, it is possible for the belief to be abandoned based on the evidence presented. The amount of evidence required to ‘shake’ a belief is positively correlated to the strength of the belief; strongly held beliefs require lots of evidence (and even then may not give way), while less strongly held beliefs require less evidence.
Often our perception of risk is directly connected to the way we learn and how that learning impacts our belief systems. For example, a person may begin with no strong belief in the safety of household pesticides. Over the years they may develop a belief those products are safe if no events occur where the pesticide causes harm. However, if an event occurs that causes harm (and the event has a strong impact, say the person’s infant child almost dies), then the previous belief system about the safety of household pesticides may change based on this single event. If there is an event where someone gets mildly sick from the pesticide, but the event is isolated to this one instance and does not occur again, then maybe the original belief about safety of the pesticide remains.
The accepted belief can be something that is indoctrinated into the individual by their parents, social mores, and other influences. The key is the belief is not necessarily ‘learned’ through experience, but is rather accepted on something closer to the definition of faith.
One who has a strongly held belief about the safety of pesticides (I know, not the best example) may not waver in their belief even if their infant child almost dies from exposure. There may be some people whose belief system creates a foundation upon which no evidence may sway them from that belief. Understanding these basic principles of learning dynamics is an important way of putting the concept of subjective forms of value into context.3
C. Public Outrage: How Emotions Can Define Risk
With our introduction into learning dynamics from above, we can highlight some of the points made in the text about the role of emotion as a driver of value expression. In the context of public policy (and environmental policy particularly), the form of value expression focused on at aggregate levels (groups of people) may be termed public outrage (the term we will use). Visually, we can get a sense of the relationship between risk and public outrage from the following figure:
From the figure we can see the relationship between an objectively based determination of hazard and the more subjectively based component of outrage; both hazard and
For example, an environmental policy that requires people to alter their current views or paradigms may have a lesser or greater likelihood of acceptance based on a number of factors, one of which is the way in which people are subjectively valuing the underlying information for the proposed policy direction. Whether one is dealing with an issue that is steeped in reinforcement learning or strongly held belief systems impacts the degree to which the policy may be accepted in the public domain.
outrage are components of determining risk. The Sandman reading describes some of the more subjective aspects of risk assessment and I invite you to compare the details of that reading to the earlier discussion of learning dynamics. In many cases we do not perceive risk, even in very risky situations, simply because we have either accepted the risks inherent in the activity (like skiing), or we have discounted the actual risks due to experience (reinforcement learning) or a strongly held belief system. With this in-mind let us consider the aggregation of subjective values (moving from the individual to the group) as expressed through the concept of public outrage. As reflected in the reading, public outrage provides a gauge of sentiment towards a potential risk; the degree to which the public deems something risky is dependent on a number of variables including familiarity, knowability, and controllability. In many ways, the public’s perception of an environmental problem, and a proposed solution, is connected to its overall level of comfort with the problem and proposed solution. From an environmental policy standpoint, this means policy directions should tend to favor familiarity over unfamiliarity. For example, people understand the risks associated with smoking, but they discount the risk because they have a familiarity with the activity that is reinforced through a long timeframe between the activity (smoking today) and the potentially negative outcome (lung cancer decades in the future). Thus, in order to make anti-smoking policy more acceptable to the public, policy directions should focus on creating a sense of public outrage that provides familiarity to the public; educating the public on the effects of secondhand smoke can provide a strong signal making antismoking measures (smoking in public places for instances) easier to pass.4 The point to take away from this section is that public outrage can be a powerful component in making environmental decisions, and the factors that influence public outrage can impact policy directions. As stated in the text, climate change poses difficulties in public acceptance because it lacks consensus (it is not completely knowable), it cannot be easily controlled, and its impacts occur over a long period of time thus limiting familiarity. Knowing this, policies to deal with climate change that are perceived to be economically harmful to the public today (like a carbon tax or cap-andtrade system) will likely lead to greater degrees of public outrage simply because of the nature of the climate change. People may not be willing to accept the actual risks (hazards) of climate change because they do not have a consensus on the issue from a group standpoint. Again, this highlights the power of public sentiment in defining value through a subjective lens; understanding the dynamics of how public perceptions are created is an important part of understanding environmental policy, particularly public acceptance of policy directions. Note here that the section in the text on principled bargaining is one way of thinking about how to better harmonize public perception and policy directions through strategic considerations about how to approach the development of policy by including public perception as a factor in development.
Note that in this example the public’s outrage is being informed by objective information on secondhand smoke.
D. A Note on NIMBY
The NIMBY materials are really a primer for the following section on individual and multiparty decision-making, particularly how incentives help to drive individual and group decisions. Like the materials on principled bargaining, the explanation of NIMBY is helpful in understanding how value questions are further perceived through individual preferences, which themselves are highly influenced by incentives. If you can understand the preference(s) of an individual or group, then you are in a position to understand their incentives (what is driving them). If you can understand incentives, then you are in a position to think about how to mold policy options in such a way as to have a better chance of gaining public acceptance. Remember, this section is not about identifying legitimate (objective) environmental risks, but rather accounting for subjective ways in which risks are defined and internalized into the populace. Incentives are an important factor in how subjective risks are internalized into the populace as the NIMBY materials suggest. In the next section we will learn how incentives work at the individual and multiparty scale to drive decision-making. END OF SECTION.
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