2016—Paul Slovic

Photo of Paul Slovic
Professor of psychology, University of Oregon

In the course of his distinguished career, Paul Slovic has studied human judgment, decision-making, and the psychology of risk. He is professor of psychology at University of Oregon and the founder and president of Decision Research. Slovic’s research on risk focuses on the psychological and cognitive processes of decision-making on a wide range of issues: environment, nuclear power, earthquake risk mitigation, economics, gambling, political decision-making, discrimination, smoking, terrorism, and tort litigation.

A core idea of Professor Slovic’s research on public perception of risk is that people react not so much to the probability and magnitude of a hazard as to a variety of qualitative dimensions of hazard that trigger concern. Those dimensions include whether the hazard is assumed through voluntary choice or whether it is imposed without consent, whether the hazard is unfamiliar or uncertain, whether the hazard threatens future as well as current generations, and whether the hazard has catastrophic potential. The resulting psychometric paradigm of risk perception has generated deep insights into why technologies as disparate as nuclear power and genetically-modified foods seem to generate more opposition than the actuarial risk estimates would motivate. The same paradigm helps us to also understand why routine yet deadly hazards such as traffic crashes and AIDS tend to be neglected relative to their actuarial importance. Slovic shows that when members of the public experience and contemplate risk, they rely on intuition and heuristics to navigate through risk uncertainty.

In recent work, Slovic has examined the phenomenon of psychic numbing, or the failure to respond to mass human tragedies like genocide. In his work, he has closely examined why people who are typically caring and who would exert great effort to rescue an individual victim tend to become indifferent to the plight of masses.

Paul Slovic publishes extensively and regularly serves as a consultant in industry and government. His most recent books include The Perception of Risk (Earthscan, 2000), The Construction of Preference (Cambridge University Press, 2006), The Feeling of Risk (Earthscan, 2010), and Numbers and Nerves (Oregon State University Press, 2015). He has also served on the editorial boards of numerous academic journals and written for periodicals such as Science, The New York Times, and Ottawa Citizen.

Slovic is a past President of the Society for Risk Analysis and in 1991 received its Distinguished Contribution Award. In 1993, he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. He was the recipient of the Franklin V. Taylor Award for 2006, presented by Division 21 of the American Psychological Association for Lifetime Achievement in Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology. He was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).