The Laws of Fear

43 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2001

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: June 2001


Cognitive and social psychologists have uncovered a number of features of ordinary thinking about risk. Giving particular attention to the work of Paul Slovic, this review-essay explores how an understanding of human cognition bears on law and public policy. The basic conclusion is that people make many mistakes in thinking about risk and that sensible policies, and sensible law, will follow statistical evidence, not ordinary people. The discussion explores the use of heuristics, the effects of cascades, the role of emotions, demographic differences, the role of trust, and the possibility that ordinary people have a special "rationality" distinct from that of experts. Because people are prone to error, what matters, most of the time, is actual risk, not perceived risk.

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., The Laws of Fear (June 2001). Available at SSRN: or

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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