What Is Risk Perception?

Nicole Etolen

Risk perception refers to how a person perceives the risk associated with a specific activity or event. Just about every activity, from grocery shopping to skydiving, has some type of risk associated with it. Most people weigh the potential for danger against the benefits of the activity and decide whether to go through with it. Risk perception is highly subjective, with each person making their own decision about the potential danger involved in various activities.

Some medications can alter a person's risk perceptions.
Some medications can alter a person's risk perceptions.

Large, life-altering decisions rely heavily on risk perception. For example, a couple deciding to try to have another baby after a miscarriage often weighs the risk of losing that baby against the potential benefits of another pregnancy. If the couple decides that the chances of a happy ending are higher than the risk of losing the baby, they may determine that it is safe to proceed with their plans.

Alcohol can lower a person's risk perceptions.
Alcohol can lower a person's risk perceptions.

People also make minor decisions based on risk perception every day. These small decisions include deciding the best moment to merge into traffic or choosing a lunch based on foods that haven’t caused the diner to suffer from indigestion in the past. Most people make their decisions without giving it much thought, or base those decisions on routines that have worked well for them in the past. For example, a diner choosing her lunch may get the same thing every day, or have a limited selection from which she chooses. She already knows that none of those selections are likely to disagree with her, so she perceives their risk to her gastrointestinal tract as minor.

Those who have lost loved ones in a plane crash may overestimate the risks of flying.
Those who have lost loved ones in a plane crash may overestimate the risks of flying.

In some cases, a person’s risk perception can be skewed by life events, making him or her believe that something is far riskier than statistics indicate it is. For example, statistically speaking, most planes make it to their destination without crashing. Those who have lost a loved one in a plane crash, however, overestimate the risk involved in flying and may develop a phobia about using that mode of transportation.

The decision to become pregnant may rely heavily on risk perception for some couples.
The decision to become pregnant may rely heavily on risk perception for some couples.

Psychological disorders can also play a role in altering risk perception. Someone with anxiety disorder may overestimate the risk associated with everyday tasks, such as driving to work or giving an important presentation in front of a group of colleagues. Other disorders can cause affected individuals to underestimate the risk of an activity. Drugs and alcohol can also significantly impact the user’s ability to properly assess risk. Alcohol, for example, tends to lower inhibitions and allows drinkers to believe they are less susceptible to harm.

Most people perceive skydiving as a risky activity.
Most people perceive skydiving as a risky activity.

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Discussion Comments


I have issues with anxiety, so I perceive a lot of things to be risks. Other people think I'm overreacting, but there are a lot of things I would rather avoid.

I quit my job and started working from home because the sixty-mile round trip commute seemed too dangerous. I feel like I put my life in too many other people's hands when I get out on the road.

Also, I won't swim in any natural body of water. I think that there are too many creatures down there, as well as bacteria, and there are just too many chances for disease or death to occur.

I go grocery shopping at odd times of the night to avoid crowds, because where there are lots of people, there is more danger. I would never go to a big sale at a department store or at any store, because that would attract more people.


I think that your perception of risks has a lot to do with how you were raised and your early childhood experiences. I grew up around cows and horses, so I'm not afraid of approaching them at all.

I have a good friend who grew up in the city, and she refuses to go horseback riding. She also will not get close to a cow, so she can't walk through the pasture with me.

However, she has some behaviors that I deem risky because of my upbringing. She doesn't think her behavior is risky at all.


@StarJo – Risk perception really is subjective. I fly all the time, and I can't understand why people are afraid of it.

I do a lot of traveling for work, and there's no way I could do what I do and not fly. I have to go from state to state just about every two days.


I've never lost a loved one to a plane crash, but I still perceive flying as being too risky to take a chance on. This is because I have control issues.

If someone else is driving a car I'm in, I am very nervous. I flinch a lot, and I find myself trying to put on the brakes by pushing my foot into the floor. I also cling to the door handle for support.

In an airplane, I would have absolutely no control. There's nothing I could do if it were going down, either.

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