Perceptions of Risk

Grace Russell

Imagine back to when your 10years old, you get in trouble at school and your teacher would always say to you “If Sarah told you to jump off a cliff would you!?” Of course, mine, and hopefully your answer, was no. But why?

The way people perceive risks is purely individual, it comprises of trust and confidence that you, as an individual view potential hazards (Siegrist et al. 2005). To understand risk perception, Slovac has mentioned that geography, sociology, political science, anthropology and psychology are the main factors influencing. He explains that our response to hazards is mediated by social influence, these including friends, family, fellow workers and respected public officials. While social groups have the ability to “downplay” certain risks and “emphasise” others as a means of controlling society. In my opinion this can be crucial in public response to new technologies. However, do they really have that much say in what we value and perceive as risky or not risky?

Slovac explores different mediums to explain why throwing a pebble into a pond can cause a larger than expected ripple effect. In other terms, why do the lay public have such strong opinions and perceived risks on new technologies when experts say there are minimal risks? If life satisfaction and optimism so greatly influences our perception of risk (Kelay & Fife-Schaw 2010) why do we fear so much from new technologies?

Slovac begs to differ with his explanation that bias media coverage, misleading personal experiences and the anxieties generated by life’s gambles causes uncertainty and risks to be misjudged. He also goes on to say that presenting different information about risks in different ways alters peoples perspectives.

This is all well and good for Slovac to take time to explain where our perceptions of risk come from, but the main focus of his article, which he does eventually get to, is about the differences from the risks that are perceived by the experts and that of the lay people. He explores the fact that even when presented the information on new technologies, lay people still perceive far more risks than actually involved. A far greater ripple than the pebble should have made.

Slovac explains this phenomenon by one word. The unknown. The unknown is what encourages people to perceived greater risks in technology. New technology to lay people is unchartered waters, they see it as “uncontrollable, inequitable, catastrophic and likely to affect future generations”. Slovac focuses on one main example, nuclear power. He explains that an accident can take many lives and may only produce little social impact if, and only if, it occurs as part of a familiar system. However a smaller accident in unfamiliar circumstances (ie nuclear power) can have immense social consequences and can be perceive to harbour further more catastrophic accidents.

Dupont (1981) states “the irrational fear of nuclear plants is based on the mistaken assessment of the risks”. An explanation for this “mistaken assessment” is put forward as the extensive unfavourable media covered and a strong association between nuclear power and the use of nuclear weapons.

The connection between this fear of the unknown has forced the public to become irrational, to perceive risks far greater than what scientific experts know and have discovered. Lay people sometimes do not hold all the information about new technologies and hazards and therefore make uneducated perceptions on the risks involved.

To solve this world wide issue, Slovac proposes that we should improve communication between the experts and the public, direct educational efforts and predict public response. That unknown might one day become a known fact and, if asked again, would I jump off that cliff? I can confidently say no, why? because I know the risks involved.

Siegrit M, Gutscher H & Earle TC 2005, “Perception of Risk: The Influence of General Trust and General Confidence”, Journal of Risk Research, vol. 8, no. 2, pp 154-156.

Kelay T,  Fife-Schaw C 2010, “Effective Risk Communication: A Guide to Best Practice” . Techneau.

Slovic P 1987, “Perception of Risk”. Science, vol. 236, pp 280-285.

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3 comments so far

  1. Bahram Mirfakhraei on

    Good work Grace.
    I also agree that usually people are scared of things that they do not have enough information about. However, when they understand the situation and obtain the related knowledge, they will not overestimate the risk anymore, because the unknown issue will be known and understandable. You made a good point in your blog by using the example of jumping off a cliff. Even though the answer to the question is still the same, there is a huge difference between understanding the situation and emotional decision making. Subsequent to understanding the risk associated with new technologies, people can make their decision based on their knowledge and they do not make decisions just because they are scared.
    A good example of new technologies can be GM foods and Nanotechnology. Much more communication between scientists and public is required so that people can exactly understand the risk associated with these technologies and do not overestimate the risk.

    Bahram Mirfakhraei

  2. giselle013 on

    This is an interesting post – i was certainly one of those people that would say no to jumping off the cliff- because everyone else said no to that question. The lay person definitely suffers technophobia. Its ironic that we are so concerned with the seemingly minute risks posed by some environmental problem when they assume greater risks by smoking,drinking and driving, or not wearing seatbelts?
    The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima electricity plant is the world’s worst nuclear incident in 25 years.Many of the concerns regarding nuclear power were not rational. But they were understandable, given we are fed a diet of fear by opponents of nuclear power.Rationally, we should all fear climate change. It threatens our future and the future of our children.

    The biggest contributor to climate change is coal. Renewables alone can’t replace coal quickly enough. But nuclear power plus renewables can, with minimal risk. The only rational response is to be open to the further deployment of nuclear power, in partnership with growth in renewables.

  3. nicolabawden7 on

    Some interesting points Grace. I think that we can often be a bit hypocritical in our response to risk perception. For example, the majority of us are more than happy to receive the electricity generated by nuclear power, as long as we don’t have to worry about it directly affecting us. This is related to the concept of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) whereby people advocate a proposal, but oppose implementing it in such a way that would cause an inconvenience or sacrifice on their part.
    Another factor which influences our risk perception of new technology, which you touched on, is our trust and confidence in who is responsible for it. For example, if the public has had a good experience with a company in the past, they are more likely to trust them again in the future in relation to a new technology.
    I think that people’s overreaction to anything “new” is only natural and not likely not to change anytime soon. The important part, as you mentioned, is going to be improving the communication as a dialogue between the experts and the lay public, to educate them on their fears.
    Nicola Bawden


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