Two Conceptions of Emotion in Risk Regulation

26 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2007 Last revised: 16 Apr 2013

See all articles by Dan M. Kahan

Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School


Recent work in cognitive and social psychology makes it clear that emotion plays a critical role in public perceptions of risk, but doesn't make clear exactly what that role is or why it matters. This paper examines two competing theories of risk perception, which generate two corresponding understandings of emotion and its significance for risk regulation. The irrational weigher theory asserts that lay persons' emotional apprehensions of risk are heuristic substitutes for more reflective judgments, and as such lead to systematic errors. It therefore counsels that risk regulation be assigned to politically insulated experts whose judgments are free of emotion's distorting impact. The cultural evaluator theory, in contrast asserts that emotional apprehensions of risk reflect persons' expressive appraisals of putatively dangerous activities. It implies that emotional apprehensions of risk should at least sometimes be afforded normative weight in law, and also generates distinctive strategies for reconciling sound risk regulation with genuinely participatory, democratic policymaking.

Keywords: risk, norms, cultural, cognition, emotion

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M., Two Conceptions of Emotion in Risk Regulation. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 156, 2008; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 346; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 141. Available at SSRN:

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


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