Human attitude toward risk is a complicated thing — and it doesn’t always seem to make sense on the outside. In a lead-zinc mining village in China’s western Hunan province, for instance, scientists recently observed some confusing patterns when it came to the villagers’ perceptions of the environmental and human health risks associated with mining for heavy metals.

In their study, published on Oct. 22 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, the researchers found that villagers who were not directly involved with the mines (which were privately operated, not government-owned) perceived the risks associated with mining to be much higher, and were more likely to oppose the practice than people who actually worked in the mines and were more directly at risk of heavy-metal toxicity.

The researchers conducted the study by distributing questionnaires, which asked 220 local villagers questions about their level of concern for the effects of pollution on their village, crops and families; how much benefit they perceived themselves to be deriving from the mining operations; and whether they supported or opposed lead-zinc mining in the village.

The researchers chose to focus their study on lead-zinc mining specifically because of its prevalence in China and its demonstrably serious health and environmental consequences, said Shu Li, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology and the study’s lead author, in an e-mail to The Post.

“China is the world’s largest producer of lead and zinc, accounting for nearly half of the global lead mine production and more than a third of the global zinc mine production,” Li said in the e-mail. “Lead-zinc mining and smelting activities are, however, some of the primary sources of heavy metals pollution.”

Lead-zinc mining in China

Lead is a toxic metal, which can contaminate the environment and cause serious health problems in humans. According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure accounts for 0.6 percent of the global burden of disease. It’s capable of affecting many of the body’s functions and is particularly known for its ability to cause neurological damage, especially in children.

It’s been a particular concern in China, where thousands of cases of lead poisoning have been reported in recent years. One of the problems could be that environmental regulations in China are not always adequately enforced, suggested Yixiu Wu, a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia who works in China.

“It’s a mixed picture because the regulation [is] actually quite stringent in terms of evaluating the concentration of heavy metals in the air and in the water,” Wu said. “But the disadvantage is that most of the time there is not enough monitoring to make sure that the regulation is being followed up.” Wu has been involved in several Greenpeace-led studies of heavy-metal pollution in China, including a study that found widespread lead and cadmium contamination near China’s largest lead mine in the Yunnan province.

So it seemed counterintuitive to find, in the new psychology study, that people who are more directly involved with the mining process — and, thus, more susceptible to its risks — were less concerned.

It’s a phenomenon the researchers refer to as the “psychological typhoon eye” effect, and it’s been observed in other cases as well. In fact, according to lead author Li, the researchers were inspired to conduct the study after witnessing a similar phenomenon following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people. In that case, shortly afterward, research showed that people in the most severely devastated areas were least concerned about another earthquake.

While such attitudes might be motivated by different factors in different cases, the researchers’ theory in the case of the lead-zinc mining community is that risk perception is driven by the perceived benefits of the risky activity. In other words, people who stand to benefit more from the mines themselves (for instance, by working and earning money from them) are more likely to perceive their dangers as being lower.

And, indeed, the researchers’ surveys showed that people who perceived more benefit from the mining also perceived less risk. People who saw less benefit perceived greater risk — and these people were also more likely to oppose lead-zinc mining in the community at all.

Making sense of our strange risk perceptions.

And from a psychological standpoint, these results aren’t surprising at all, said Stuart Carlton, a coastal ecosystem and social science specialist at Texas Sea Grant, who was not involved in the study but has conducted other research on human perceptions of environmental issues, including climate change.

“Whether or not [people] have a stake in something changes the way they perceive risks related to it,” Carlton said. What’s important to remember, he said, is that people don’t generally evaluate risk in rational ways, as a scientist might. “People assess risks based on their feelings about it, their experience with it,” he said.

And in the brain, risk and benefit are often tied into the same process, said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and president of Decision Research, who was also not involved in the study.

“The brain doesn’t keep these separate,” he said. “They kind of blend these into an overall feeling of ‘this is something good or bad.’” This means that perceived benefits and perceived risk are often negatively correlated in the mind — meaning the greater benefit a person sees in an activity, the less risk he or she will associate with it, and vice versa.

It’s a phenomenon that’s shown up time and again in the case of environmental issues. One example is in the public’s reactions to early communication efforts by the nuclear power industry, Slovic said. One comparison that the industry made was to say that the risks associated with a properly operated nuclear plant were less than the risks of driving a car every day, he said.  

“People did not take kindly to that comparison,” he said. “They felt these are apples and oranges. I’m in control of my car, I’m getting benefit from driving my car — I don’t necessarily feel that I’m getting a benefit from a nuclear power plant in the region.”

But in the case of the lead-mining village, Wu, the Greenpeace campaigner, said she’s concerned that the villagers’ attitudes could have been compounded by a lack of adequate education on the risks of heavy-metal contamination — an issue she said is widespread throughout the country.

“I don’t think even the workers working in the mines know enough about it,” she said. “I think they know very little about how this could potentially harm their health or harm their family’s health.”

But when it comes to changing attitudes toward risk, mere education is often not enough, Carlton said. This is an issue that arises frequently in conversations surrounding anthropogenic climate change, where research has shown that simply presenting facts and statistics to climate doubters is rarely enough to change their minds.

“Information is not education, and education is not behavior change,” Carlton said. “People do not behave purely rationally around risks.”

But understanding the factors that influence risk perceptions could help activists and policymakers become better communicators on environmental issues, nonetheless. Changing the way costs and benefits are framed is one suggestion the study’s authors make, for instance by more clearly communicating the cost of lead-zinc mining in a way that minimizes its benefits — or by promoting other livelihoods, such as cash-crop farming, that could provide better benefits with fewer risks.

Such strategies could help influence the kinds of environmental policies citizens support and oppose, as shown in this study. “Policymakers and managers in risk management should think twice about the desires of different interest groups before they act,” the authors wrote.