Though economists and policy wonks have over the years asserted that humans are rational beings, when it comes to making decisions about risk or whether to help others in need, it turns out we’re often led by our emotions and our narrow perception of a given situation.
It’s his contribution to the understanding of how we make consequential decisions—whether to invest in a risky business venture, whether to donate to a charity, how to stop genocide or the more disastrous outcomes of climate change—that has earned Paul Slovic an honor he now shares with some of history’s most influential people.
Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and one of the founders of the Decision Science Research Institute, has been awarded the 2022 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science by the Franklin Institute.
The Franklin Institute, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, has honored people who make significant contributions to the advancement of science, engineering, and industry since 1824. The Bower Science Award is presented in a different theme each year and carries a cash prize of $250,000.
Slovic notes that while he appreciates the honor of the award, his research is by nature collaborative and his many colleagues also deserve credit for their contributions.
“Through my work, I’ve sought to understand how people process information to make a choice and how to help them improve,” he said. “Risk perception resides in this mix of emotion and other factors. With risk situations, we are typically responding with our intuitive feelings and not with analytic calculations. We rely on how things feel to us.”
Slovic’s research, which began in graduate school studying how people make choices among gambles, evolved to the study of how our feelings, known as affect, determine many of our judgments and decisions. This led to the concept of psychic numbing, situations in which people lack appropriate feelings and become numbly indifferent to horrific events like genocide because the human brain cannot easily comprehend mass death.
“Affect is much fainter than fear or anger,” he said. “It’s a feeling, a subtle whisper of emotion that’s powerful in affecting the way we respond to things that come to our attention. Our behavior is motivated more by our feelings than by reasoned arguments. This is well known to advertisers: They manipulate consumers by making products look attractive.”
One of Slovic’s former students who worked with him on the emotional affect research is Ellen Peters, the Philip H. Knight Chair in the School of Journalism and Communication, and Director of the Center for Science Communication Research.
“You may have heard the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants.’ As researchers, we all stand on the shoulders of the people before us who made great scientific discoveries. Paul is the giant for many in my fields of research,” Peters said. “His work has had tremendous impact because people learned something unique and important and then expanded on it. So, it’s not only about his research but also that others have produced more great science because of him. That’s why he is so deserving of this award: It’s about us all standing on his shoulders.”
In recent years Slovic has worked on the issue of decision defensibility, in which a person makes a choice that from one angle is defensible, but from a moral perspective is wrong. Former President Barack Obama’s decision to not become involved in the Syrian war — which could have saved thousands of lives and potentially prevented one of the largest mass human migrations in recent memory — was justified by his view that U.S. security was more important.
Slovic has armed us with the knowledge that some of the most important decisions we make often have very little rational thought behind them. His research, and that of his former students who have become prominent researchers in their own rights, helps us understand why climate change negotiations fall apart, why we have such a hard time eradicating poverty, and why we express little concern about the control of nuclear weapons despite their existential threat. Slovic said that, if nothing else, he hopes his legacy is that awareness.
“The first step is to understand how our behavior may be nonadaptive to a particular problem,” he said. “If we’re part of the problem, we need to understand how that is and why and what we can do about it. My work calls attention to the ways in which our minds deceive us and cause us to do things that end up being very harmful. “
It's understanding this flawed “arithmetic of compassion” that Slovic hopes will help people improve their capacity to make critical decisions for the betterment of humanity.
“Paul's contributions to our understanding of how we become numb psychologically to great tragedy—and his work to help policy makers overcome this tendency to make compassionate, human-centered decisions — is one of the many reasons he is so deserving of the Bower Award,” said Cass Moseley, interim vice president for research and innovation at UO. “The research he has conducted for decades has led to real change in improving people’s lives.”
— By Kelley Christensen, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation