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Legal expert says laws often follow when public's fears exceed reality

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

Amitai Aviram
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
New laws and strengthened enforcement are often rooted in times of angst when the public’s worries far outstrip reality, says Amitai Aviram, an Illinois law professor who has written three articles examining how enacting and enforcing laws influence the public perception of risk. But laws can be counterproductive if the public’s perception of risk is too low rather than too high, Aviram said.

11/6/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When hijacking fears soared out of control after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, tougher airport screening quickly followed to ward off panic that could have crippled the nation’s airline industry.

New laws and strengthened enforcement are often rooted in similar times of angst when the public’s worries far outstrip reality, says Amitai Aviram, a University of Illinois law professor who has written three articles examining how enacting and enforcing laws influence the public perception of risk.

“It wouldn’t work by having politicians say ‘Look, you’re all scared by an imaginary thing.’ The public won’t buy it,” Aviram said. “But they will buy it if politicians say, ‘We’ve just enacted a law and because of that you shouldn’t be worried.’ That’s more credible.”

Good politicians have a knack for picking high-profile issues with the widest gap between real and imagined risks, then reaping the political rewards, Aviram said.

He says those measures have placebo effects, similar to medicinally inert pills. The results of the legal placebos, he says, are mixed.

Some laws serve the public good even though they lack any real bite, including tighter airport screening regulations that helped calm the public’s excessive fears of hijacking after the World Trade Center fell to terrorism, Aviram said.

“People don’t know that they misestimated the risk, so they credit the law,” Aviram said. “The politicians get a lot of benefit. They get re-elected as a result of that. But in addition it’s good for society in this particular case because people are now flying more frequently and more in line with the real risk.”

But laws can be counterproductive if the public’s perception of risk is too low rather than too high, Aviram said.

“People already underestimate the risk of car accidents,” he said. “So if politicians go around saying new air-bag regulations make cars safer, that could make people more overconfident than they were before and they may drive more recklessly – they might not wear seat belts.”

Politicians also risk creating worry rather than allaying it by targeting issues that the majority of the public has not yet deemed a problem, Aviram said.

“It’s like finding glass while walking barefoot in the yard and picking it up. You should feel safer, but instead you worry about how much more might be out there.”

Aviram argues that lawmakers should consider those side effects as they consider bills that span perception gaps.

“The impact of laws on the perpetrators is only part of the story,” he said. “The other part of the story is what message it sends to the rest of the public, the potential victims. Calming them down is a good thing, but there’s also the risk of giving them false security or agitating them.”

Aviram says lawmakers aren’t the only ones who engage in what he calls “bias arbitrage,” drawing a parallel with speculators who buy and sell in two different financial markets to capitalize on price differences.

Private businesses, such as insurance companies, jump in when the public overestimates risks such as car burglaries or natural disasters, Aviram says. And the media make their living showcasing risks the public hadn’t considered or debunking problems that have been overestimated.

“They compete with each other. If one gets to it first, it’s a lost opportunity for the others,” Aviram said.

One of Aviram’s three articles on law and risk perception recently was published in the George Washington Law Review; two others will appear soon in the Washington & Lee Law Review and the Yale Journal on Regulation.

Editor’s note: To reach Amitai Aviram, call 217-244-1668; e-mail aviram@illinois.edu.