By: Emily Weigold (Bugle Team)
Edited by: Emma Keoy (Bugle Team)
Long told in traditional folk lore, in stories of lands far, far away and in every bestselling Disney movie, men are fearless. Women worry, tremble and fret but men are bold and men ultimately save the day. Although we may now dismiss this as a product of old, patriarchal attitudes, embracing the potential for both fearless heroes and heroines, psychological studies may allude to an element of truth in the intrepid male aesthetic.
Recent research has suggested that men actually tend to fear potential risks less than women do. Furthermore, white people report less fear than people of colour (Flynn et al., 1994; Finucane et al., 2000). These studies have explored levels of fear associated topics such as climate change, nuclear power, gun laws, and abortion risks. The majority of these results concur, painting a picture of ‘the white male’ as a distinct group of seemingly fearless individuals.
Although this discrepancy in fear is disputed by many, numerous theorists have posed potential, often controversial, explanations for this phenomenon. Some point to the influence of traditional gendered roles – of females evolving heightened receptiveness to potential dangers due to their roles as caregivers and protectors of children. Further speculation has drawn links between fear and education about risk, with white males traditionally having greater access to education and therefore being able to make more informed appraisals of risk. Others suggest that the white male effect is not a matter of perception at all, but rather a result of this demographic being less vulnerable: having been more politically empowered throughout history, white males may have greater trust in governments and their protection.
Kahan et al. (2007) discuss and refute all of the above theories, instead suggesting that perception of risk is shaped by core beliefs or attitudes – ‘worldviews’. They pose the idea that white males generally hold more hierarchical worldviews, believing in different degrees of entitlement such that resources and opportunities should be distributed based on factors such as race, age, gender. They also suggest that white males hold more individualistic worldviews, with emphasis on fending for yourself and focusing on distinct, individual identity.
This link between personal worldview and risk perception was supported by the results obtained, finding that hierarchical and individualistic white males perceived relatively lower risk associated with free gun laws. Kahan et al. hypothesised that freedom to bear arms reinforces the notion that individuals can fend for themselves, and that ownership is associated with a hierarchical, patriarchal society. Therefore, by perceiving lower risk, individuals act to maintain their worldviews, with which their identities are associated.
This theory was also expanded to explain perception of risk associated environmental issues. Hierarchical, individualistic, white males rated a lower perception of risk in relation to nuclear power, global warming and pollution. Kahan et al. suggested that assertions of environmental risk are seen as undermining the competence of government figures with the responsibility to handle such issues. Similarly, this could be viewed as an attack on those high up in business, as it could suggest that elements of commerce, such as using nuclear power, can be dangerous. This acts to support hierarchical models of the world by promoting the authority of these elites.
In times of great progress towards gender and racial equality, these findings suggesting internalised inequality can be startling. However, the research of Kahan et al. reframes risk perception in terms of core beliefs and attitudes, decoupling it from gender and race. This is key to leaving behind old stereotypes shaped by inequality, and paving the way for new ideas and new freedom.
Finucane, M. L., Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K., Flynn, J., & Satterfield, T. A. (2000). Gender, race, and perceived risk: The’white male’effect. Health, risk & society, 2(2), 159-172.
Flynn, J., Slovic, P., & Mertz, C. K. (1994). Gender, race, and perception of environmental health risks. Risk analysis, 14(6), 1101-1108.
Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P., & Mertz, C. K. (2007). Culture and identity‐protective cognition: Explaining the white‐male effect in risk perception. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 4(3), 465-505.