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.