Throughout my career I have been astounded on occasion as to how differently people can interpret information. Take for example when I am delivering a course. You can talk about a topic for a while and then ask a question surrounding it and you will get vastly different answers. This, I guess occurs for many reasons, largely surrounding the psychological make-up of the individual such as their attitudes, beliefs and social and cultural values.
Take for example the Covid-19 pandemic. It is interesting to see in the media that there are many who feel the restrictions are not strict enough, and even a few that feel that restrictions are disproportionate. Obviously something is occurring on the way that people perceive and determine risk that significantly differs from scientific estimations. People’s judgement of a risk therefore largely depends on not just the scale and nature of the issue, but other sociological and psychological factors.
Who communicates the risk?
Who is telling you about the risk is quite an important factor in risk perception. Let’s say that you do not like the party that currently governs your country as you didn’t vote for them and don’t trust them. This can mean for some at least, that you are less likely to trust what they have to tell you regarding risk, even if it is backed up by science. You may therefore, depending on your view of the message giver, either under or overestimate the risk.
I remember many years back reading a guide produced by the DEFRA (a department of the UK government) covering risk perception and they outlined a number of factors that can cause anxiety or alarm regarding a risk – they called these ‘fright’ or ‘outrage’ factors. If present, they are issues which lead to people either over or under estimating risk. Let’s look at a few of these now:
Involuntarily imposed risks are ones that people sometimes over estimate. For example if an incinerator is planned to be built in a town there will likely be some concern as to the impact on the health on the local population, yet the risk of pollution from the plant in this day and age is likely to be low. People sometimes overestimate the risk in this type of scenario as they perceive they have very little control. Yet, some people undertake dangerous sports at the weekend as a hobby. As they have decided to do this it is common that the risk to their safety will be underestimated.
Man-made risks or technological risks tend to be overestimated so examples might include nuclear power or pesticides, when compared with natural risks such as flooding. I think people sometimes perceive natural risks to be less as they feel that they have very little control over them (which is not always the case BTW!) whereas society could control man made risk if they want to.
Another fright factor are those risks that cause a single large scale outcome. Imagine that a plane crash occurs that unfortunately leads to many deaths and is widely reported in the media. A fair number of people who are about to get on a flight the next day will be fearful to do so, even though scientifically the risk of a plane crash occurring is still very, very low and has not changed much or at all after the accident.
Risks that impact upon specific groups are often overestimated. Take for example children or future generations. Some people will overestimate the impacts of risk on such vulnerable groups compared to the impacts on other groups or themselves.
The next time you watch the news on the TV make sure that you try and spot outrage factors such as these. Some issue even though they are not really that important (from a scientific perspective) cause anxiety or alarm as they consist of one or more of these factors. The media focus on these over scientifically more significant issues as they are more likely to generate interest and get you to watch the news.
This is a fascinating topic. It’s interesting to know why something that you probably had a sneaking suspicion about all along, that a person’s perception of the significance of risk sometimes differs from the actual unbiased scientific evaluation. It’s really important to understand this if you want to communicate and manage environmental risk effectively in the workplace.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.