How does familiarity affect risk perception?




Risk appetite/tolerance/acceptance depends upon risk perception which may be biased by familiarity. Familiar, traditional risks are underestimated and unfamiliar or non-traditional risks overestimated. Risk management (regulation) is proportionately biased. Consider sexism and racism, then the discrimination between traditional v non-traditional drugs.


The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report, Drug misuse and the environment:

"1.17 The environment can encourage or oppose drug use partly through greater or lesser physical access to drugs, the presence of drug markets and knowledge of them, the number of dealers and the level of enforcement. In addition, the environment comprises prevalent, normative attitudes towards drugs which make these drugs more or less attractive and acceptable to the individual.
6.15 For many young people alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs inhabit one and the same world rather than constituting separate domains. The possible influence of their illicit drug-taking behaviour which is exerted by the climate of ideas on licit drugs needs therefore to be considered. The majority of people who have used illicit drugs have previously used tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol and cigarette smoking have been found to be the most powerful predictors of marijuana use.
2.27 it is important to also look at the use of tobacco, alcohol, and solvents, since early use of these drugs has been shown to predict later use of illicit drugs.
50. If society intends to provide young people with an environment which helps them not to take illicit drugs, or to reduce the harms which they do, the climate of awareness and beliefs on alcohol and tobacco must be seen as part of that context.
58. We question whether it is sensible to confine drug prevention messages to the health consequences of taking drugs. We give some examples of other approaches, involving social unacceptability, which might be considered.
94. Not to take action against blatant dealing must have a symbolic importance which should not be disregarded. It suggests a "don't care" attitude which can only affect the climate of beliefs adversely".


United Nations definition of ‘drugs’:

"What are drugs? A very basic question but one that needs to be clarified. For, if we start thinking of drugs as just the substances that cause problems or are abused by people we know, then we are likely to ignore other substances that, for one reason or another, are not thought of as drugs by our immediate communities. A psychoactive substance is any substance people take to change either the way they feel, think, or behave. This description covers alcohol and tobacco as well as other natural and manufactured drugs". - Chap 2, p.1


Government’s drug education website, Talk to Frank:

"alcohol can play a major part in many people's social lives. That's why it's easy to forget that it's actually a very powerful drug".


The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology leaflet Safety in Numbers:

"Familiarity – People appear to be more willing to accept risks that are familiar rather than new risks".


Department of Health’s Communicating about risks to public health:

"Risks are generally more worrying (and less acceptable) if perceived to arise from an unfamiliar or novel source".


Common speech:

"Familiarity breeds contempt". The risks of familiar drugs, alcohol and tobacco, are treated with contempt.
"Better the devil you know". Risks that are familiar are easier to manage than those unfamiliar (or may appear so).


Strategy Unit's Risk: improving government's capability to handle risk and uncertainty

4.2.9 The EIU report of 2001, Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) [45] found that:

• non-traditional risks pose the greatest threat. Executives reported that their most significant risks aren’t those traditionally managed by the risk management or treasury departments. The top three are customer loyalty, competitive threats, and operational failure. These are also among the risks companies believe they manage least well. Equivalents in the public sector would be public satisfaction and trust in services, and maintaining service delivery;

[non-traditional drug consumers are not 'loyal' to the Government but choose drugs that compete with those the Government licenses leading to a failure of Government operations, prohibition]



This biased risk assessment leads to proportionately biased regulations - the over-regulation of non-traditional drugs (prohibition) and under-regulation of traditional drugs. The discrimination between traditional and non-traditional drugs shares the same fundamental characteristic as sex, race and disability discrimination. Unjust discrimination seems to be founded on prejudice by the traditional majority against non-traditional minorities. The pre-judgement made (judgement before evidence) is that the non-traditional is more harmful than the traditional. Non-traditional minorities are then over-regulated (either consciously or unconsciously), denied equal opportunity, instead being socially excluded. The traditional majority benefits from under-regulation as regulations are focused on the minorities. The discrimination is justified on the basis of harm with no acceptance that the discrimination is actually merely between the traditional and non-traditional. This may be a common factor in many cases of organisational culture resistant to change.

Cultural norms dictate familiarity. We are all familiar with traditional drugs so we accept them. Only now is legislation proposed to prevent tobacco addicts killing others through passive smoking. Few are concerned that a drug that warns it kills is sold alongside sweets for children. 90% of adults use stimulant and intoxicant drugs to alter mood for ‘non-medicinal’ reasons: caffeine and alcohol. Society is in denial about its acceptance of drug taking: we refuse to call traditional drugs ‘drugs’.