Study by W. Kip Viscusi looks at “values” assigned to fatalities

Dec 29, 2009

Professor W. Kip ViscusiAmericans value preventing deaths from terrorist attacks almost twice as much as they value preventing deaths from natural disasters, according to a study by Vanderbilt economist W. Kip Viscusi.

Read W. Kip Viscusi’s study, “Valuing Risks of Death from Terrorism and Natural Disasters”

The nationally representative study, published on-line in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, also shows that people value preventing deaths from terrorist attack at the same rate as the prevention of deaths from traffic accidents, which pose a greater personal risk, said Viscusi, the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics and Management.

These findings may be of interest to policymakers weighing their response to more restrictive measures for airline travel in the wake of the failed bombing attempt by a Nigerian man aboard a Northwest flight to Detroit.

The public continues to be willing to provide support to victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Viscusi said. But their support is tempered by two issues: The perception that people exposed to risk from natural disasters have created “a situation of moral hazard” and the extent to which the public identifies with the victims.  Moral hazard is an insurance term that refers to people taking actions that increase their risk once they know that they will be covered by insurance.

The sense of dread created by the threat of terrorism also is a factor, he found. There also is an element of “involuntary risks outside the individual’s control” that adds to the sense of urgency about terrorism prevention.

Differences in the potential for personal risk played a role in individual responses to Viscusi’s survey. But even people for whom the risk of terrorism is small value the reduction of terrorism-related fatalities at a much higher rate than fatalities from natural disasters, he said.

Viscusi said this premium placed on terrorism risks is consistent with the Department of Homeland Security’s greater emphasis on combating terrorism rather than preventing losses from natural disasters.

Media Contact: Jennifer Johnston (615) 322-NEWS

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