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Toxics, Toyotas, and Terrorism: The Behavioral Economics of Fear and Stigma

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Economists have traditionally viewed the behavioral response to risk as continuous and proportional. In contrast, psychologists have often contended that people have little control over their response to risk that is dichotomous, nonproportional, visceral, and fear based. In extreme cases, this automatic response results in the stigmatization of a product, technology, or choice, which seemingly cannot be eliminated or reduced. In resolving these contrasting perspectives, we review four recent studies that blend behavioral economics and psychology. Together, they provide evidence for a dual‐process decision model for risk that incorporates both reason and fear. They show consumers’ responses to perceived risk as a mix of proportional and dichotomous (safe/unsafe) responses that are relatively more continuous in situations where deliberation is possible, and more dichotomous in emotional or stressful circumstances. These findings reconcile mixed results in past studies, and, more importantly, the dual‐process model allows a clear definition of stigma, and suggests new ways to mitigate stigma and to help manage potentially damaging overreactions to it.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, NY, USA

Publication date: April 1, 2012


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