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.


4 comments so far

  1. codyevans88 on

    Reviewed by Cody Evans, 20283534

  2. Steven Chew on

    Interesting post, Cody.

    I can see how using those particular techniques to elicit desired decisions may cause a stir and how it will raise ethical concerns. Some may say it’s even taking advantage of the lay-public and pushing the limits of warping the truth to gain the required outcome. However I think that it may be legitimate to do so but it really all depends on the circumstances.

    I think that it is more appropriate to use psychological methods when the public has a decent amount of knowledge of the risks that the practitioners are trying to communicate. It is when the risks are more complicated and not as well understood, those methods will begin to raise eyebrows.

    To keep control over situations like this, I’m sure there will always be different bodies to scrutinize communication strategies and keep the communicators in check.

  3. yveee on

    Hi Cody,

    Thanks for your post! I had this feeling of deja vu when I read the example of Latisha and the likelihood of her being a bank teller and a feminist – I’m so sure I’ve come across it somewhere before.

    Anyway, I digress. In response to your closing question (and Steven’s comment), I reckon that almost everyone, science communicator or not, is “guilty” of using psychological methods to produce a desired decision outcome from someone else. Whether it is an environmental scientist trying to get the government to introduce policies to protect a local habitat, a clothing company trying to increase sales through TV advertisements, or a student trying to convince his friend to go skydiving with him, we all employ psychological methods to elicit the responses we want. I think that if it is positive attitude and behaviour change we want, structuring the information we communicate such that it elicits decisions by the public to change is good, and sometimes necessary – especially if positive response is going to save or benefit lives.

    Arvai’s paper highlights the fact that there is more to deciding on the strategy for risk communication than meets the eye. The way we choose to communicate risk to the public will almost certainly have an effect on their response. Being aware of our personal biases and over-simplifications (assumptions and stereotypes), and as Arvai suggests, structuring the information well, will help to make our communication more effective to our target audience. How else do you think we can reduce our tendency to over-simplify complex issues?


  4. zoesimmons on

    Hi Cody,
    Interesting post!

    I can see what you mean about the unethical nature behind using psychological methods to produce a desired outcome. I do have to agree with Yvette, we are all guilty of using certain methods to shape responses in other people. This can be both subconciously and conciously. I’m sure that government bodies and companies producing risk assesments also do this whether they mean to or not.

    To me, shaping someones response is a normal human thing to do, and is almost a nessesity in risk assesment to prevent certain public views from forming. I do beleive that there is a line between shaping someones response through psychological methods and lying though. When this line is crossed the whole idea is unethical and dangerous when it comes to risk assesment.

    Really the formation of a risk assessment is unique to whatever the situation may be, and the use of such psychological methods may be important to the outcome or may be detrimental. I think it is situation-specific.


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