University of Oregon │ Decision Science Research Institute │ Eugene, Oregon
For foundational theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of decision making, including understanding perceptions of individual and societal risk, and cognitive and emotional factors affecting preference. His research shapes policy in fields ranging from health and medicine to government and industry.
As one of the world's leading researchers on risk and decision making, Paul Slovic has provided invaluable insights into some of the most important parts of being human—how humans evaluate risk and make decisions when it counts. His work on the phenomenon of "psychic numbing" also shows the way to better comprehend the costs of human tragedy and become more compassionate ourselves.
As we watch the news, particularly during the past two years amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, we are constantly being inundated with numbers and figures: numbers of cases, casualties, deaths. At first, the numbers may be shocking, but as they become endlessly repeated and revised, we find ourselves beginning to tune out. The staggering differences between the deaths of ten, one hundred, one thousand, or even one million people seem to have little effect.
Why do we become inured to mass suffering and death, despite being caring and humane people who wish only the best for others? This is the result of a phenomenon called "psychic numbing,” arising from the limitations of our own psychology and how we process information, and it is a concern because it can lead to apathy, cynicism, and an unwillingness to help the victims of disaster and misfortune. Paul Slovic has spent his career studying this and other perplexing aspects of how humans think, perceive, make judgments and decisions, and act individually and interpersonally.
Born in Chicago and raised throughout the Midwest, Slovic was interested in numbers, percentages, and statistics from a young age, not out of scientific but rather athletic enthusiasm. He was awarded a basketball scholarship to DePaul University, but instead of the NBA, the course of his life soon drew him to psychology and Stanford University, where he learned how to adapt his mathematical talents to psychological research. After earning his doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1964, he devoted himself to the study of risk and decision making, working with his close colleague Sarah Lichtenstein at the Oregon Research Institute. Later, with Lichtensein and Baruch Fischhoff, he founded the Decision Science Research Institute, an independent research center known as “Decision Research.” In 1986, he also became a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.
Slovic, Lichtenstein and Fischhoff studied gamblers, stock market investors, and others making voluntary or involuntary choices: how they weigh risks and payoffs, how factors such as background and social status affect choice, and how various ways of describing outcomes and courses of action affect choices and risk assessments. Is risk-based choice a matter of reasoning, intuition, or some dynamic interplay of both? Do people behave differently depending on whether they are facing common or extreme situations? Slovic pushed the answers to these and other questions in new directions by applying data-driven psychometric research methods, often considered more the province of economics than psychology. His unique insights helped to weld the two fields together into the new discipline of behavioral economics.
Slovic's work demonstrates that the study of risk has ramifications far beyond the individual and personal level, bearing directly on matters of public policy and social issues. The COVID-19 pandemic is only the most recent illustration of how differing perceptions of risk can profoundly affect choices not only on the individual but also on the national and global scale. Slovic has shown that perceptions of risk have affected policy decisions on issues such as nuclear power, genocide, nuclear war, domestic violence, climate action, and the response to natural disasters.
Research by Slovic and his colleagues has developed several highly influential theories, among them the "affect heuristic," which is the tendency of people to sometimes make quick decisions based on intuitive feelings and emotion rather than slow and careful reasoning. Slovic's “psychometric paradigm” provides a means of measuring the perception of risk and benefit and how various contextual and emotional factors affect it.
Slovic is also widely known for his study of psychic numbing, an idea first codified by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Psychic numbing is a response to tragedies on a massive scale, such as in the Holocaust, nuclear war, or, as we are now seeing, deadly global pandemics. Slovic finds that despite the better angels of our nature, the sheer number of victims involved in such disasters leads us to a sense of helplessness and inattention. He shows that changes in how mass tragedies are reported and presented can minimize apathy and motivate action to help the afflicted and to prevent future catastrophes. The importance of Slovic’s research is further validated by his involvement as an advisor to various U.S. government agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Pentagon.
Each of us, whether an ordinary person or a president, must consider risks and make decisions, both as an individual and as a member of our communities and the world at large. The work of Paul Slovic has provided innovative, original, and crucial insight into the ways humans carry out this vital part of living—and how we might be able to do it more effectively and more humanely.