Keynote Lecture

When Emotion Trumps Evidence: Challenges for the Public Understanding of Risk

Wolfgang Gaissmaier, University of Konstanz, Germany

Monday, 22 May 2023, 08.45-09.45

The public perception of risk is often polarized, difficult to anticipate, and at odds with expert opinion. The risks associated with genetically modified food, certain chemicals, and new technologies continue to elicit strong public reaction in contrast to expert assessments, whereas the public is much less worried about the risks associated with poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle. At the same time, many people overestimate the benefits of medical treatments such as cancer screening and alternative medicines. One problem is that both experts and laypeople often fail to understand the relevant statistical evidence. But even if the evidence is understood, we observe a shortage of evidence culture in our society, including among the highly educated. People dismiss scientific evidence that does not fit to their beliefs, be they political or religious. Fundamental misperceptions of randomness and causality fuel (medical and other) superstitions. Finally, the interpretation of risk is also shaped by social processes, which can amplify misperceptions and lead to polarized beliefs. What can be done? Some of these obstacles can be overcome by teaching statistical thinking and by using transparent representations of statistical evidence. But this is not enough. We ultimately need a societal consensus regarding the meaning and interpretation of science, and the courage to base decisions on evidence rather than eminence or superstition.


Wolfgang Gaissmaier
University of Konstanz, Germany

Wolfgang Gaissmaier (*1977), PhD, has been a Full Professor of Social Psychology and Decision Sciences at the University of Konstanz, Germany, since 2014. His research investigates how people make decisions under uncertainty and how risks can be communicated more successfully to help people make better decisions, particularly in medicine. For many years, he worked as Chief Research Scientist at the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. Wolfgang Gaissmaier’s work has been published in leading psychological and medical journals. He received numerous awards, including the Otto Hahn Medal for outstanding scientific achievements by the Max Planck Society (2008), a fellowship at the Young Academy of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (2012-2017), a rising star nomination by the Association for Psychological Science (2013), and awards for excellent teaching and being a positive role model by the students of the University of Konstanz (2016, 2019, 2020).


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