Is the world really a more dangerous place than it once was? Or do we just think it is? What factors influence the way in which we perceive risk and how do they affect our decision-making? What are the implications for those charged with protecting us? David Ropeik and Paul Slovic offer some insights into risk communication –

Do we live in riskier times than humans have faced before? It is a common question in these days of terrorism, snipers and weapons of mass destruction, of genetically modified food, climate change and HIV/AIDS.

The answer is both yes and no. The evidence is mixed but people all over the world at least think – and it is perception that is important – that the risks we modern humans face are greater than ever before.

The implications of this apprehension are immense for public and environmental health and for the global economy. It is necessary to shed light on human risk perception and to offer some insight into why the public’s fears often seem not to match the facts.

Empowered by such insight, governments can do a more effective job of risk communication, both through their policies and through what they say about them, which will help citizens keep their fears in perspective.

This, in turn, will not only help individuals make wiser, healthier decisions for themselves, it will also help focus citizen pressure on protection from the relatively greater risks. And that will allow governments, businesses and other social institutions to invest in the optimal protection of public and environmental health with the most efficient use of limited resources.

So just how risky is the world in which we live? Consider some data from the United States which reflect similar trends in developed nations worldwide. In 1900 the average life expectancy was about 45 years of age. Today it is nearing 80. In just the past 40 years, infant mortality has dropped from 26 per thousand live births to seven. In 1918 the influenza epidemic killed 600,000 Americans. In 1999 influenza killed about 2,000 Americans.

By major measures, this is a far healthier, safer world. But new risks have arisen. Worldwide more than 22 million people have died of AIDS since 1984. The postwar industrial/technological/information age has given us both the benefits and the risks of nuclear power, pesticides and now the genetic modification of food.

Under the burden of a global population that in the last 100 years has exploded from 1.65 billion to more than 6 billion, environmental risks such as climate change, water and air pollution and the mass extinction of species have added to a growing litany of new perils.

On top of this host of new hazards, we live in a time of unsurpassed media availability and immediacy of information. Whenever something is discovered that is even possibly a peril, we learn of it, worldwide, within days.

It is also a new phenomenon that the majority of our sources of information are owned by a small number of large corporations. These corporations are interested in profits, and so their media outlets often make new risks sound as dramatic as possible in order to grab our attention and attract us to buy their next newspaper, magazine or television broadcast.

These are the modern realities of what seems to be a risky world, but they overlay what appear to be ancient ways in which we perceive and respond to danger. Several decades of research on risk perception have found that humans tend to fear similar things for similar reasons. These patterns of risk perception are less often based on facts and more often on affective and intuitive factors.

To understand these risk perception characteristics is to gain some insight into why people are commonly more afraid of some relatively small risks and less afraid of others which in certain ways cause greater harm. Here are some of these characteristics.

Control

Do you feel pretty safe when you drive? Most people do. Having the wheel in your hand gives you the feeling that you can control what happens. But switch to the passenger seat and you are a little more nervous because you are no longer in control.

This applies to any number of things. If you feel as though you have some control over any process determining a risk you will face, the risk will probably not seem as big as if it was decided by a process over which you felt you had no control.

The dread factor

What is worse – being eaten by a shark or dying of heart disease? Both kill you and heart problems are by far the risk more likely to do you in. But the dreadful death often evokes more fear. Cancer is perceived as a dreadful way to die, and so hazards that might cause cancer evoke strong fears. Dying in a plane crash is also perceived as dreadful, which helps explain why so many people fear this relatively low risk.

Do we also distinguish between natural risks and those that are man-made? Artificial sources of radiation such as nuclear power, mobile phones and electrical or magnetic fields frequently evoke greater concern than radiation from the sun. The sun poses a vastly greater risk, causing 1.3 million cases of skin cancer and 7,800 melanoma deaths per year in the United States, but is less worrisome because it is natural. This factor helps explain widespread concern about many technologies and products.

Choice

A risk that we choose seems less risky than one imposed on us. If you have used a mobile phone while driving, you may on occasion have noticed a driver next to you, also using his mobile. You may have felt upset about the risk that the other driver was imposing on you, even though you voluntarily took the same risk, albeit with less concern. (Of course, you also think you can control your car, and so the perception factor of control also contributes in this example.)

Children

In addition to the genetic imperative to survive, which is, after all, the underlying impetus of our risk perceptions and responses, humans are genetically driven to reproduce. Survival of the species depends on the survival of our progeny. Thus a risk to children, such as asbestos in a school or the abduction of a youngster, seems worse than the same risk when applied to adults, as with asbestos in the workplace or the kidnapping of an adult.

After the murders of five adults during the recent sniper attacks in Washington, DC, the sniper shot a 13-year-old boy. The local police chief, tears in his eyes, declared of the sniper: “He’s really getting personal now.”

Is the risk new?

When BSE first appeared in Germany, an opinion survey found that 85% of the public thought mad cow disease was a serious threat to public health. But the same poll conducted at the same time in the UK, where BSE had been around for years, found that only 40% of the public thought mad cow disease was a serious threat. This was so although many more animals and people had died in the UK than in Germany.

New risks, including new technologies or products, are always more frightening than the same risks after we have lived with them for a while, when our experience allows us to put them into perspective.

Awareness

The more aware of a risk we are, the more available it is to our consciousness, and the more concerned about it we are likely to be. In the Washington, DC, area last October, fear of being shot by a sniper was much higher than fear of the greater risks of heart disease, cancer or stroke. These other risks had not disappeared, but conscious concern about them was lower because awareness of them had been reduced.

Are we personally vulnerable?

Any risk seems greater if you think you or someone you care about could be a victim. Consider terrorism in the United States. Before September 11, 2001, any Americans who were victims of terrorism were thought of as “someone else”. Yes, they were Americans, but they were in foreign embassies or on foreign military assignments. After 9/11, however, Americans at home felt that they, too, were possible targets, and the fear of terrorism grew.

This helps explain why statistical probability is often irrelevant to people. Imagine that someone hands out a million bottles of water, one of which contains poison. You get one of these bottles. Now imagine taking a drink from it. Your risk of dying from that water is only one in a million, but it still feels risky to drink it because you could be that one.

The risk-benefit trade-off

When measles and polio were prevalent, the benefits of vaccination were perceived to outweigh the risk of side effects. But now, when these diseases are rare, the perception of some parents is that the risk of side effects, low as they are, outweigh the benefits of vaccination.

Many risk perception researchers believe that the risk-benefit trade-off is a major factor in making us more or less afraid of a given risk.

Trust

Finally, there is the issue of trust. Research has found that the less we trust the people who are supposed to protect us, the more afraid we will be. The same applies to the degree of trust or otherwise we place in the people exposing us to the risk in the first place or to the people telling us about the risk.

The more we trust, the less concern we will feel about a given risk. Imagine you are in a desert, nearly dead of thirst, and someone appears and offers you two glasses of a clear liquid. He will not tell you what is in either glass, only that one comes from Pope John Paul II and one from Saddam Hussein. Which would you take?

But what are we to make of all this? Of what good is it to understand the underpinnings of our fears or lack of them? And if these risk perception characteristics are intrinsic, as they may well be, what can be done about them?

By understanding these characteristics, and by accepting that they are intrinsic, policy-makers can incorporate risk perception values, as well as careful fact-based analysis, into their risk management decisions. Furthermore, by understanding why people perceive risk as they do, policy-makers can communicate with various audiences about these issues in terms and language relevant to people’s concerns.

Risk communication – in a way which acknowledges and respects the emotional component of people’s concerns, rather than dismissing such perceptions as “irrational” because they are not solely fact-based – is likely to be more successful in helping people bring their sense of risk into closer perspective with what the actual risk may be.

And why does this matter to policy-makers in government, business and public health? Because people who misperceive risk – who are either too afraid of relatively low risks or not afraid enough of relatively big ones – make dangerous mistakes. People afraid of flying choose instead to drive, which is much riskier. The fear itself poses a risk.

On the other hand, people unafraid of natural risks such as solar radiation, or risks they think they can control, such as smoking, alcohol consumption or diet, fail to take adequate precautions and they, too, face a greater likelihood of premature death. A lack of appropriate caution can be dangerous, too.

Furthermore, when risk perception characteristics trigger high concern about a relatively low risk among large groups of people, those people pressure government for protection from that lesser risk. This forces government to allocate resources in a less than optimal way.

Time and money spent on protecting people from relatively low risks because they evoke high concern are not available to protect people from greater risks which do not trigger as much worry. As a result, some of the people left unprotected from the greater risks will suffer. Some will surely die.

The solution is at hand and is urgently needed in this world which is seemingly riskier than ever. Risk communication, informed and empowered by an understanding of risk perception, must become a priority at the highest levels of policy-making in government, business and international affairs.

More must be done to help people keep their sense of risk in perspective. Decision-makers must realize and accept that the danger of misperception of risk is real. It is both a significant threat to public health and an impediment to thoughtful and efficient policy-making.

In terms of risk communication, policy-makers must consider the implications of what they do, not just of what they say and how they say it. Setting an acceptable exposure threshold, allowing or disallowing a particular product or process, requiring or not requiring labelling – indeed any risk management decision – has meaning and impact in terms of risk communication.

The most senior officials must consider the risk communication implications of their actions as policy choices are made. Risk communication, then, must be thought of as more than just press releases, news conferences and public service campaigns. Risk communication is walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Some call this pandering to irrationality and emotion, and suggest that a benevolent technocracy should be empowered to manage societal risk in order to ensure the development of the most intelligent, rational and effective policies. But this fails to recognize that fear itself – either too much of it or not enough – poses a significant risk which must also be factored into decisions about public and environmental protection.

Risk communication, informed by the insights of risk perception, is a vital and too often neglected tool for helping people make more informed, thoughtful and safer choices for themselves. It will free the leaders of social institutions to make more rational, fact-based risk management choices in order to maximize public and environmental health with the most efficient use of limited resources.

David Ropeik/Paul Slovic
David Ropeik, MSJ, is director of risk communication at The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

Paul Slovic, PhD, is president of Decision Research.