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Risk: Reason and Reality

Bisphenol A. Safe? Not Safe? Psychology over Toxicology

      The battle over Bisphenol A (BPA) rages on, and continues to teach lessons far beyond the particulars of the issue itself. Environmentalists argue that BPA (the supposedly dangerous chemical component in some plastic bottles and the lining of food cans) is dangerous and should be banned. The FDA studied the evidence the environmentalists find so convincing, and remains unconvinced. They announced late Friday (always a good way to avoid higher media attention for an unpopular decision) they have rejected a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban BPA.

            Here’s a quick primer on the facts; BPA is suspected of harming the reproductive and nervous systems during fetal development, and of causing some adult health problems too. There are signs of this in nature, and from tests on laboratory mice. But the FDA rejects the case that what happens in lab mice, who get the BPA injected into their blood, happens in people, who ingest BPA via our food into the digestive tract, where it breaks down faster and behaves differently. They also say many of the lab studies have been too small, and the results haven't been reproduced to confirm them. European food officials, pretty precautionary about chemicals these days, agree. They haven’t banned BPA either. Even the Canadians, who recommend BPA be taken out of baby bottles, say there is no evidence that it’s actually harming people. Like lots of companies that have removed BPA-containing products from their shelves, the Canadians say they are just being precautionary.

     But here’s the problem. I know a fair amount about this stuff, but I am not nearly expert enough to make an informed judgment about which side is right about BPA, just based on the science. You probably aren’t either. So how are we supposed to make up our minds about what’s safe and what’s dangerous? Just how does risk perception on something like this work?

     When we don’t have all the facts, or all the time to get them, or all the smarts to understand them, or when scientists themselves still debate just what the facts are, we call on a bunch of subconscious mental shortcuts to judge risks like this. A couple of these ‘heuristics and biases’ will almost certainly play a role in how most of us react to the FDA action;

REPRESENTATIVENESS. We make sense of partial information by comparing those few clues against patters of what we already know, patterns those clues seem to ‘represent’. BPA is a “CHEMICAL”, and robust research has found that when you mention ‘chemical’ to people, their first response is usually something negative, like ‘dangerous’, ‘death’, ‘cancer’, etc. BPA represents something dangerous.

AVAILABILITY. The easier something comes to mind, the more the brain tells us that it probably mattered a lot when we first remembered it, so we’d better pay extra attention. BPA has been in the news for years now, so this latest development will readily bring to mind the worrisome things we’ve already learned about it. In essence, our alarm bells are primed and ready to ring, so anytime the issue comes up, as with the FDA announcement, the alarms ring louder.

     We also judge risk based on some ‘feelings factors’, psychological characteristics of the partial information we have that make it more, or less, scary.

TRUST Do you trust the FDA? Do you trust the chemical industry? Do you trust environmental groups, who are out for the common good but certainly have their own perspectives on things. Who you trust more will shape how you feel about BPA.

UNCERTAINTY. When you don’t know what you need to know to protect yourself, you feel powerless. There are various forms of uncertainty with BPA. First of all, there’s still a debate about just what the science says. Beyond that, the stuff is invisible/odorless…undetectable. If you can’t detect it, you don’t know what you need to know to protect yourself. That feeling of lack of control, fed by uncertainty, makes BPA or any risk scarier.

(There are many more of these risk perception factors described in  ‘How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, in Ch. 3, available free)

     In addition to feelings factors like trust and uncertainty, and mental shortcuts for decision making like representativeness and availability, our opinions about a lot of things, including risk, are powerfully shaped by our underlying desire to agree with the groups with which we most strongly identify. Research into something called Cultural Cognition  has found that the basic underlying worldview of one of those groups is that big companies have too much power and create an unfair society in which we all don’t have equal opportunity. People who feel that way are called EGALITARIANS, and they tend not to like many of those companies and their products, particularly companies associated with potential environmental harm (chemical companies and BPA, nuclear power, the genetically modified food industry) since environmental harms are caused by a few and imposed on the many, and that’s just the kind of unfairness Egalitarians dislike.

            On the other hand, people who prefer a structured society with rigid economic and social class ladders are more supportive of the industries and free market that help create that kind of predictable hierarchical society. They’re less likely to be bothered by environmental problems like BPA in general, and they particularly don’t like environmentalist (Egalitarian) demands for government rules and regulations that level the playing field and make things fair for all, but threaten the companies that contribute to the more stratified society in which you feel comfortable. These folks are called HIERARCHISTS, and more than likely, they will applaud the FDA decision on BPA.

     Mental shortcuts, ‘feelings factors’, underlying subconscious worldviews and our desire for social cohesion…none of this seems to have much to do with the science of BPA, does it!? Yet this is how risk perception works. The battle over BPA will rage for years, and each side will base their arguments on the facts. Just remember that with BPA, or any risk, our perceptions are based on far more than just the facts alone. How risky something actually may be, in the end, can be a really different thing from how risky it feels.

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