Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Taking advantage of psychology.

How do communicators make decisions? Much literature on science communication has been published on both the processes and content perspectives of communicating risk, for example whole risk communication handbooks have been written on the methods on how to critically evaluate specific risk communication programmes.

Joseph L. Arvai points out that there is a knowledge gap in the decision making aspect of risk communication. This stems from the fact that many regard it as a largely technical area.

Most practitioners of risk communication assume that these decisions will depend mainly on the quality of the information that is given to decision makers. As a result, designers of risk communication processes have relied heavily on risk analysts to provide them and ultimately their audiences with detailed information regarding the nature of many risks

The article dose not try and dispute the importance of having high quality risk information on hand during decision making. It dose however highlight the fact that low quality decisions occur not just because there is a lack of good information on which to base a choice but also

That people tend to simplify complex information which in turn leads to the public making decisions which tend to be biased.

Some communicators, because of the complexity of the task combined with their limited processing ability tend to abandon rational decision making approaches.

The article takes the psychological approach to a communicator’s decision process and states that, “people’s ability to be rational is bounded, such that they make most of their decisions after evaluating a smaller, much smaller, set of considerations and alternatives.”

Based on the psychological principal of “conjunctive probabilities” Joseph L. Arvai states that communicators are overestimating the likeliness of certain details.

For example, Latisha is 33 years old, single, outspoken and intelligent. When she was a student she majored in philosophy was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in environmental demonstrations. What is the most likely

scenario that describes Linda today?

Given the choice between labelling Latisha a bank teller and a bank teller that is active in the feminist movement, most people choose the latter. They make this decision because the initial statement about Latisha leads them to overestimate the probability that she is both a feminist and a bank teller. While this may be the case, it is more likely that Latisha is simply a bank teller.

The implications of overestimating and its associated bias are significant for risk communication. Because of this, organizations responsible for managing a risk can structure information such that it leads to a desired conclusion by decision makers without having to distorting the technical content of a risk message.

Is it appropriate to structure the process such that it leads to a desired decision outcome? The very notion of using certain psychological methods to give rise to desired decisions is a scary notion, and at the least, raises ethical concerns for many people.

 Arvai, J. L. 2007.  Rethinking of risk communication: lessons from the decision sciences.  Tree Genetics and Genomes 3:173-185.

Are rules alone enough?

Uploaded by Nicola Bawden on behalf of Steven Chew

In 1988, Covello & Allen developed the seven cardinal rules of risk communication. These rules are as follows:

  1. Accept and involve the public as a partner
  2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts
  3. Listen to the public’s specific concerns
  4. Be honest, frank and open
  5. Work with other credible sources
  6. Meet the needs of the media
  7. Speak clearly and with compassion

These rules have been pinnacle and have offered practitioners helpful guidelines over the years when dealing with risk communication. However are these rules adequate to guide us through the problems we face when trying to communicate risk? K.E. Rowan does not think so and her paper “Why rules for risk communication are not enough: a problem-solving approach to risk communication” explores this.

At first glance, the rule-based approach seems sufficient enough. It gives us a fairly comprehensive guide of what to do and how to approach risk communication. However limitations are present. They do not offer much assistance in determining why a certain communication approach has failed.
The rule-based approach also does not help to anticipate and overcome likely difficulties in future risk situations or even help locate information about how to reduce these difficulties.

With a diagnostic or problem-solving approach, we are able to overcome these limitations. This approach to risk communication is able to recognize the range of problems characterizing risk situations. Risk situations are characterized by breakdowns in credibility, awareness, understanding, agreement about solutions and enactment of effective response (also known as the CAUSE mnemonic). Furthermore the problem-solving approach locates key obstacles to the five communication goals and offers message-generation principles likely to overcome identified difficulties.  The framework integrates research from diverse fields by focusing on ways similar risk communication difficulties can be reduced with analytic communication skills. There are five general obstacles and goals that risk communicators need to understand.

  1. People need strategies for creating trust and diagnosing risk communication situations that are riddled with suspicion.
  2. Awareness creation strategies are needed as risk communication situations are characterized by lack of awareness
  3. Risk communication situations involve difficult
    ideas hence we need strategies for determining why these ideas are difficult and methods to overcome these difficulties
  4. There is need for skills in gaining agreement as risk communication situations involve frequent disagreements
  5. Risk communicators need strategies for motivating action

The problem-solving approach says that risk communication requires knowledge, fair processes and communication skills. It concentrates on enhancing people’s communication skills by providing conceptual tools for analysing and responding to risk situations. The tools used are: specifying goals for risk communication, identifying obstacles for each goal and lastly presenting research-supported methods for dressing each obstacle. In Rowans paper, she goes on to illustrate the use of the problem-solving approach by examining two communication goals in detail: building trust and explaining complex material.

I think that the 7 cardinal rules (and the rules-based approach in general) will always have its place when dealing with risk communication. In most instances, it will prove to be sufficient but may leave some practitioners wanting. However Rowan does make a number of valid points and her argument for the adoption of a more problem-solving approach makes sense, especially when having the need to anticipate and deal with likely difficulties concerned with risk communication. It is certainly a more complicated route to dealing with risk communication, but is it worth the trouble?



Rowan, K. E.
1994.  Why rules for risk communication
are not enough: a problem-solving approach to risk communication.  Risk Analysis 14(3)369-374.

Covello, V. and F. Allen (1988), Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication,
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy

Visitor Learning from a Science Centre Exhibition

Usha Chandraseharan, 20218671

How many of you have actually learnt something after a visit to the museum? There is such a vast amount of information that free to be learnt at the museum, but just how many of us leave satisfied? There may be many new discoveries that may leave us in awe, but what about learning and widening our knowledge? With the Contextual Model of Learning derived by Falk and Dierking, 12 factors have been derived that affect one’s ability to learn from an exhibition. These factors are divided into 3 categories, personal context, sociocultural context and lastly physical context. The experiment was carried out in the form of surveys and mostly their target audience was people who had a vast understanding of science, worked in science fields and also science graduates.

Evaluating this experiment was essential to appreciate the study as well as understand it in a better manner. Firstly, this experiment was open to the public. People who attended this exhibition were of various age, occupations, gender and such. With picking only the ‘science-knowledged’, it was pretty evident that the sample size achieved was relatively small and also, while narrowing down to the 3 categories, sample sizes only got smaller. With a small sample size, an experiment would be less accurate.

Also, 12 factors were claimed to have affected education in a museum. These 12 factors were divided into 3 categories and surveyed. The results showed that these categories  worked together in resulting an effect in museum learning. But the results did not show that these factors, on an individual basis, would affect education. Thus I believe not a perfect framework was used to analyse the amount one learned in an exhibition.

Lastly, surveys were done to attain results. Due to the vast improvement in technology these days, there are many new and interesting methods to confirm learning instead of surveys that do have a level of inaccuracy.



Falk, J.,  Storksdieck, M. (2005). Using the contextual model of learning to understand visitor learning from a science centre exhibition. Wiley Periodicals Inc, Sci Ed 89: 744-778