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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > ONAMI > Musings on Risk and Reward Salience in America, and what they might have to do with Nanotechnology

Skip Rung
President and Executive Director

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.

Related examples abound: Established companies that play "not to lose" rather than to win - the same salience issue may be the psychological essence of the innovator's dilemma and the entrepreneur's opportunity. Elected officials who find it easier to highlight or exaggerate a problem and pass (not infrequently redundant) laws than to patiently build positive and incremental achievement. Small investors who ride a losing stock down a rathole rather than accept a timely and limited loss. Already comfortable people who want to be "sure" something is 100% safe before trying it, regardless of the benefits. None of these attitudes honors the can-do pioneer legacy that is still the path to the American dream for those who have yet to achieve it.

So back to nanotechnology. The studies and columns about the social and economic benefits (energy, environment, medicine, communications, jobs) of commercializing nanoscience innovations continue, as do the ones warning that potential/unknown risks related to nanomaterial toxicity and transport could give the discipline a black eye if we don't keep ahead of them. Both emphases are clearly right, but there is reason to believe that the default attitude of most Americans (to say nothing of the folks in developing nations) is more oriented to the upsides than is the case with the elites.

Progress on scientific knowledge and applications is steady and encouraging, but truly new social and policy insights seem few and far between. I humbly propose that the greater hunger for opportunity on the part of the less affluent (who will turn out in the thousands for jobs at the new Walmart) deserves more conscious counterweight in the current discussions and upcoming rulemaking about protecting them from the potential risks of nanotechnology.

OK, I promise to write something more technically interesting next time.

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