Selective Fatalism Social Norms, Social Meaning, and the Economic Analysis of Law

Cass R. Sunstein


Human beings are selectively fatalistic. Some risks appear as "background noise," whereas other, quantitatively identical risks cause enormous concern. This essay explores the reasons for selective fatalism and possible legal responses. Sometimes selective fatalism is a product of distributional issues, as people focus especially on risks that face particular groups; sometimes people adapt their preferences and beliefs so as to reduce concern with risks that they perceive themselves unable to control. Sometimes selective fatalism is a product of heuristics and biases. Finally, selective fatalism can be a product of diverse judgments of value and of unreliable social influences on risk perceptions. Selective fatalism might be overcome by an emphasis, as a regulatory starting point, on how many "decently livable life-years" might be saved by regulation.