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Relative perceptions of opportunity and risk with nanotechnology will depend on socioeconomic status. It is likely that the comparatively affluent and comfortable people engaged in nanotechnology research and policy making are more attuned to risk - and less attuned to opportunity - than the population at large.
July 26th, 2007
Musings on Risk and Reward Salience in America, and what they might have to do with Nanotechnology
It's a familiar problem: what do you get your elderly widowed grandmother for Christmas? She needs nothing and has already downsized her living space without getting rid of enough furniture and other possessions to avoid clutter.
Years ago, I hit on a creative solution to this conundrum - an Oregon lottery ticket, the first (and only) one I ever purchased. Grandma was suitably horrified that anyone would think she could want such a thing, and the rest of the family enjoyed the joke. I can't remember now if we ever scratched it, though I suspect one of my kids did.
If you are reading this and you got the "joke", chances are that you hail (like I do) from an affluent/professional family background. And chances are most of the people you know professionally and socially do as well. Without a doubt, the researchers, policymakers and pundits - including Nanotechnology Now columnists - involved in nanotechnology constitute a demographically rarified (dare I say, elite?) group. And a demographically rarified (dare I say, patronizing?) group which has declared itself competent to look out for the economic, social, safety, health and environmental interests of everyone impacted by nanotechnology, i.e. everyone else on the planet. It was ever thus with those controlling the levers of power, commanding heights of culture, etc…
So what on earth does this have to do with lottery tickets (other than, full disclosure: ONAMI is a grateful recipient of Oregon state lottery funds)?
Just this: the elite don't buy lottery tickets (or take those gambler special buses to Reno). We do call them charming things like a "tax on stupidity". Radio ads warn potential buyers that the lottery should be played for fun, not used as an investment vehicle. Well, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of lottery customers aren't stupid at all, but do in fact treat lottery tickets as an investment. It's not a lot of money (even for the relatively non-affluent in America), and the payoff, however unlikely, would be life-changing. Where else is that on offer? In more formal terms, the potential reward is what is "salient", i.e. prominent in the buyer's attention. Generalizing, for those who feel they have more to gain than to lose, what is salient is an upside, something that might go right.
We affluent, elite types tend to see things differently. We have more money than time, and more consumption or ability to consume would be to pile excess on excess, and certainly not make us much happier (though our neighbor's McMansion might make us envious). But we really don't want to lose what we've already got - home equity, comfortable retirement account, good health, or maybe just the view from our neighborhood (heaven forbid that it should ever include a big box store or condo tower). So for those of us with more to lose than to gain, what is salient is a downside, something that might go wrong.
And boy, do we affluent types like to put distance between us and all conceivable downsides. Seatbelts (readers my age may remember rolling around untethered in the back of the station wagon on a family trip), bike helmet laws (I may be lucky to be alive, given what I didn't use in the 60s), anti-smoking laws, continued exponential growth in environmental regulation, Sarbanes Oxley, etc… Much, maybe even most, of this is both laudable and necessary, but I do mean to suggest that the trendsetters and rulemakers in society may be more attuned to what might go wrong than the greater number of people looking for something to go right for themselves and their families.
So what you see in a given situation depends a lot on who you are and where you are coming from.