Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

How risky is too risky?

Error in the lay people’s perception of risk is often exploited and a change in this perception is sought. The research of this perception, making it known to experts and decision makers, would be beneficial for the communication of hazard.

The basic instinct of people is to avoid harm. Harm can mean different things to people depending on their past experiences, location, age, gender and values. The extent of the harm to themselves and the people around them is directly linked to the risk involved with the incident. To have an idea of what the lay public perceive as risky and not risky would be a way to scale and quantify risk.

Something unknown such as Nanotechnology would be perceived as risky, where as something known like taking an aspirin for a headache would be less risky. To plot these applications, developing a scale and therefore quantifying risk would be a way for the black hole in communication between experts and the lay people to be eliminated.

When I thinking of communicating risk, my mind often wanders to what would happen if Zombies attacked. How would the experts communicate something most wouldn’t believe existed?

What do you fear most? If someone told you that you were wrong to fear that, would you stop?



Slovic, P. (1987). Perception of Risk. Science, 236(4799), 280-285.



To believe or not to believe

Who do you go to in dire times of need? Why do you turn to them? 
It’s most likely because you trust them!

Trust seems to be one of the most highly weighted elements in determining good or effective communication. 
For example, I trust my mother completely and so whatever she tells or teaches me, I believe her (i.e. the message is effectively communicated). When you trust someone, the credibility of the message is naturally established and the message is easily accepted. However, when this trust is broken, communication is hindered. That’s where all the tricky bits come into the place. 

The question is, why causes that trust to be broken? In the case of risk communication, it is because information was concealed or withheld from the receivers of the message and when they do eventually find out, they feel deceived and question the initial intentions of the communicating party. Were they intentionally withholding information to deceive others for self-benefit?

In this article, Leiss talks about risk communication in the context of seeking consensus on health and environmental matters. He also touches on the risk analysis, which consists of risk management, risk assessment and risk communication. He uses a poker game analogy to paint a parallel picture of “bluffing, raising the ante, and calling the perceived bluffs of others are matters of survival, in relation to risk communication. He raises a good point about parties mistrusting one another for very good reasons, which are based on historical experience. As the saying goes, once bitten twice shy.

Having said all that, the public is definitely not as uneducated and foolish to blindly believe everything that is being communicated to them. With the internet, information is so easily assessed and made available to the public, it’s no wonder “bluffs” are always being called.

So, how do you know who and what to believe? Would you believe again in someone who has “deceived” you before?



Leiss W. 1995. “Down and dirty” The use and abuse of public trust in risk communication. Risk Analysis 15(6):685-692.

Risky Business

⅓  of all Western Australian University tutors are kidnapped by their first year students and sold to the Mexican drug cartel to play in Mariachi bands!*

Okay so the previous statement is false; I made it up in the shower this morning.

However, IF it was a real fact and suddenly I (a tutor for a first year university course in Western Australia) found myself on the wrong side of the US-Mexican border with a guitar in my hand and some colleagues dancing at my feet, I would be extremely angry that the university never bothered to warn me.  At least then I could have memorized the lyrics to La Cucaracha.


According to a 2008 study by Conchie and Burns, employers need to engage in open communication with their staff if they want to retain employee trust.  Basically, they need to tell the employees the risks of the job.  A lot of trust is lost when employes discover that their bosses  have been keeping the dangers of the job a secret (Conchie & Burns, 2008).  As any cheating boyfriend will acknowledge, once lost trust is incredibly difficult to gain back again (Concie & Burns, 2008).  So the zoo should warn its groundkeepers that carelessly weeding the lion cage might result in their hand being mauled by the lions, and hospitals should tell nursing students that they might get assaulted and abused by members of the general public.  Even if the messages are negative, frustrating and unpleasant, communication is still better than leaving the employees …


in long…


silence (Concie & Burns, 2008).

How can you trust a company if you have no idea what’s going on?











The article got me thinking. Has there ever been a time when I lost trust in my employer do to a lack of risk communication?

Not really, but if I wake up in Central America, I’ll let you know.  My previous employers had the foresight to informed me that unless I want to be blind or dead, methanol is not a drinking alcohol,that before entering the -40 C freezer I needed to ‘snowsuit up’ and that paper cuts are a painful price of a paper filing system.  Perhaps it is because I was told these risks beforehand that I still have a large amount of trust in my former bosses.

What about you?  Have you ever lost trust in an employer?  Maybe you think open communication is not that important.  Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

*This statement is completely false and under no circumstances should be reported or remembered as actual fact.  It is not based on any reports, statistics, rumors or even heresy, only my overactive imagination.


Conchie, S. M., and C. Burns. 2008. Trust and risk communication in high-risk organizations: a test of principles from social risk research. Risk Analysis 28(1): 141-149.

People are simple, irrational and emotional.

The article Rethinking of Risk Communication offers up some interesting points on the way that people develop their perception of risk. These points focus on the ability to elicit certain responses depending on how risk information is structured providing the opportunity to manipulate the perceptions of the audience.

We would all like to think we are rational people who consider facts and then make educated decisions. But in reality that isn’t how most of us work. Having to process complex information requires effort and for the most part we abandon rational decision making for heuristic cues. This results in us reducing complex situations to a few simple considerations and ultimately making biased decisions. Our deference to simple cues also leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by risk communicators.


There are three main aspects of risk communication, according to Arvai in the article Rethinking of Risk Communication, that can be used to influence the opinion of the audience.


People rely on the opinions of the others around them when they perceive risk and are comforted when they believe that people like them have been consulted on a particular issue. In the eyes of most people participation leads to legitimacy which opens up the potential for risk communicators to ‘structure’ information in a way that influences the audiences perception of risk. This means that as long as people believe that others have participated in the risk analysis process they will feel more comfortable accepting the information.


It is important for risk communicators to remember that people are emotional beings and their responses to risk are instinctual rather than analytical. This can cause issues for risk communication as rational judgement is clouded by emotional responses such as ‘dread’ leading to key information being ignored. However this behaviour can be used to the advantage of risk communicators because if they communicate risk in an ‘affect’ rich way they can stimulate a positive emotional response that will then diminish the audience’s perception of risk.

Framing Effects

The way people perceive information is also strongly influenced by the way it has been framed. For example people are more likely to have a positive perception of a risk if it is framed in terms of potential gains rather than potential losses. Simple tools like this can make a big difference when influencing people’s opinions.


The main message of this article is that there is great opportunity to communicate risk in a way that will encourage the desired response or perception. This has huge implications for risk communicators as it gives them the potential to manipulate their audience. We must ask ourselves is this ok? Should people unknowingly be manipulated to accept things that they don’t even understand?

Arvai did offer some suggestions saying that in situations where the nature of the risk is well understood or the implications of the risk are catastrophic it is acceptable to use these manipulative techniques. However they are much less acceptable when the risk is not well understood.

If these tools exist what is stopping risk communicators from using them in all situations? Of course there is potential to abuse this knowledge but maybe there are situations where people need a helping hand to know what is best for them, and that is where we come in.


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

The Emergence of Risk Communication Studies: Social and Political Context

This article highlights the analysis and risk communication studies within the context of social and politics.  Particularly, the related problems concerning the “political management of public perceptions anin individual responses to risk.”

Risk communication is more than a study. Interested professional groups such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Public Health and Safety Departments and Government Advisory Agency (Decision-making body) relied on effective management of risk communication. This is where the social and political issues hold with regards to successfully imparting the message.

As an instance, the Papua New Guinea government with its political pride has fully accepted the Seabed Mining Solwara1 Project to operate in it’s territory. What the government fail to do was to fully address  was the issue of impact on the environment with regards to the population whose survival and livelihood was dependent solely on the coastal environment.

This is a perfect  interwoven case of a social and political issue, there is risk communication involved. I personally am placed in a doldrum of uncertainties. As a public servant and having to come from the coastal area in which the proposed mine site is, I have to come up with meaningful explanations for the good my people and at the same time being faithful and loyal to the government of the day.

So,  risk communication can have the following definitions as indicated by Plough and Krimsky; it can be intentionally, content, audience directed, source of information  and flow of message.  Having to understand the definitions, one can then be able to successfully take charge of the risks involved in information delivery to the lay public with ease and to the government as well. That is defining the central problem of the field. This is again a divergence between expert, policy and lay community on matters of risk.

Finally, this article concluded and settled with two important issues.

  1. Through history, models of risk communication were developed in various forms which had filtered through quantitative models  of assessment and cognitive typologies of perceptions. This forms the social context of risk.
  2. This focus on the challenges between the models in one and the structural problems  of risk communication. It then involves the political context. The analytic models were designed to respond to real problems.

Thus, finally I’d like to close with what Mary Douglas remarked, “ideas about the world come directly  out of human experience.”


Knowing is NOT Enough

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Make eye contact with the audience
  3. Define the key message
  4. Use body language
  5. Speak clearly
  6. Make take home messages
  7. Never memorize or read from a script
  8. Manage your time
  9. Avoid “Umm…” “Amm…”
  10. Practice, practice and practice

These are just a few key points you need to remember when you do your presentation.  I learnt them from the Community Presentation class at University of Western Australia.  However, even though I know these problem-solving approaches, I still do not have a lot of confidence when presenting in front of an audience.

Katherine E. R. (1994) mentioned in her paper that the guidelines on risk communication for practitioners and scholars have limitations.  In her paper, she describes a structure of discovering communication objectives, specifying the basic difficulties of these goals, and selecting research-based methods for getting over or minimizing these obstacles and achieving the communication goals.

Knowing the rules for risk communication makes it easier for us to communicate with people but I do still agree with Katherine that this is not enough.  English is my second language, so that makes it even harder for me to communicate or present to people, especially if the subject was about a specific scientific or political topic.  However, since my goal is to be a science communicator, I need the skill to talk to people in a way everyone can understand.

So, in my case, the problem is having presentations and the objective is improving my English.  To minimize this difficulty, I can do pre-presentation to my Canadian friends and get advice from them before my actual presentation.

I would like to hear your opinions and any other advices please.

Continue reading

I want to be like You

I recently read an article, “Social Norms and Identity Relevance: A Motivational Approach to Normative Behaviour”.  Having never formally studied psychology, yet having my own theories about the world around me – why people are the way they are perhaps as a consequence of their genetics and upbringing, I must admit, it was a challenging, yet immensely interesting read.  Also being from a science background I want things to have a final answer or outcome.  I have now learnt that is not the case when studying peoples’ behaviours, since an experiment carried out testing such things at the end of the day, is not a real life situation.

I learnt new terms!  The phrase, “injunctive norms” are those core values or norms you feel are morally right, and the phrase, “descriptive norms” are those norms you actually carry out.  So, how you feel versus how you act.  The three main findings I took away from this study regarding what makes us follow a certain group, were the extent to which conforming to a group motivates you to endure and continue with it as long as it evokes a positive emotional response.  The second concept is the relationship between group identity and context. The third outlines the relevance of the norm in relation to the group identity.  The latter conveyed to me that people will conform to universal injunctive norms as these represent your moral values, but they will have their own descriptive norms which are distinctly representative of a particular group.  I was reminded that people love to belong, so if there was a certain phase or group, and an individual really related to that groups’ behaviour, that person would tend to follow.  That then led me to my high school days in Scotland, where there was a “Mosher” phase, or at least that’s what I told myself I was. Kids would wear colourful striped socks, black jewellery, listen to an array of music between punk and rock, and wear black eye liner.  I signified it “Baby Goth”.  And for a while, I was one of them, long black jacket with striped socks and all – it felt cool to be different.  However, when I decided I didn’t enjoy wearing that jacket as well as discovering that I actually didn’t enjoy listening to heavy, sad music and jumping around when bands were playing, I realised other friends of mine felt the same way, and we formed a separate group.  I still talked to the “Moshers”, but didn’t associate myself as being one.  There have been many situations where I have analysed myself because the people around me behaved differently.  I thought that surely other people would have been in this sort of situation or another where say, everyone was drinking coffee, but an individual was drinking a glass of water.  Would that person let their inner feelings of not wanting caffeine, be taken over because everyone else is drinking coffee?

Research paper: Christensen, P. N., Rothgerber H., Wood. W, and Matz, D.C (2004) “Social Norms and Identity Relevance”: A Motivational Approach and Normative Behaviour, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3 (10). 1295 -1309

Monkey See, Monkey do

The human brain is adapted to detect patterns, enabling us to read, learn and point out all the animal shapes in the clouds, or the face of Jesus in our cornflakes. We seek out patterns that are familiar, it helps us understand and connect with the things around us. Teenagers are particularly perceptive to social patterns; they mimic them to forge their place in social groups. We all think it is something we grow out of, but look a bit deeper and our desire to be normal is sitting right under the surface.

As adults we use the behaviour of other people as a standard to guide our own (Cialdini, Kallgren & Reno, 1991). The theory is that we recognise patterns of behaviour from what we personally experience to create a model of what is ‘normal’ and we alter our behaviour to fit that model. But what we experience is such a small and biased sample that it is unlikely to be representative of the population. We could therefore change behaviour by correcting what is perceived as normal.

Culture shapes our model of normality. You only have to watch movies aimed at teenage American audiences to understand why their population overestimates alcohol consumption in college students (Prentice & Miller, 1993). Imagine, in a population survey the average number of drinks a student will consume on a Saturday night is five. But a small group of students regularly observe cinematic hyperbole and their friends consuming an average of 10 drinks on Saturday nights. According to social-norms theory, showing these students the real ‘normal’ will decrease their consumption.

When this theory was tested the results were mixed and some researchers found an increase in the behaviour they were trying to supress. Until one group of researchers came up with an idea. Imagine another group of students who don’t watch movies and consume an average of two drinks on a Saturday night. Researchers come into the college and present students with a statement that an average of five drinks on a Saturday night is ‘normal’. This group of low-consuming students might increase their consumption so it comes closer to the average.

The researchers tested this theory with household electricity consumption (Schultz et. al, 2007). As predicted, presenting households with a measure of their energy consumption compared to the wider population made high-use households decrease their consumption and low-use households increase their consumption. However, they were able to eliminate the increase in the low-use households simply by presenting them with a smiley face on their energy consumption report.

It seems adult behaviour is strongly influenced by a desire to be ‘normal’. In a changing culture, this is an important skill indeed. I recommend listening to a fascinating case of a troop of Baboons who lost their dominant males and developed a violence-free culture. New males entering the troop had to be able to recognise the new ‘normal’ and imitate it to be accepted into the troop. As communicators we can hijack this same system that creates our early-morning connection with a bowl of cereal and change behaviour by altering perceptions of normality and social acceptability.

I guess it really is a case of monkey see, monkey do


Cialdini, R.B., Kallgren, C.A. & Reno, R.R. (1991) A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct. Advances in Social Psychology, 24, 201-234.

Prentice, D.A. & Miller, D.T. (1993) Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256.

Schultz, W.P., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. & Griskevicius, V. (2007) The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429-43

If everyone else is doing it then I probably should to.

In Singapore, we call it being “kiasu” which loosely translates to being afraid to lose out. Others might put a positive spin on it and call it collective wisdom but we have all been there – if everyone else is doing it, then I probably should too.

Lapinski and Rimal (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005) discuss several factors that influence our decision making process, the appropriate way to react to a situation and how susceptible we are to being influenced by what society deems to be normal.

They make a distinction between injunctive norms (what ought to be done) and descriptive norms (what is actually done). How society reacts to us doing or not doing something is often the tipping point to whether or not we will perform a task. In the privacy of our own homes away from the judgement of our social network, we may indeed leave the tap running while brushing our teeth or throw out the odd glass jar or two instead of recycling.

Lapinski and Rimal (2005) suggest that individuals are more inclined to behave a certain way when three moderators are at play:

  • Outcome expectations – the perceived reward or (cost of inaction) of performing a particular task. For example, I exercise because I believe it will make me healthier.
  • Group identity – how closely we relate to a group and their beliefs. If you go against what your social network believe in, they may not consider you “one of them”.
  • Ego involvement – factors that contribute to your self-identity. These could be religious beliefs, political affiliation or even family background.

When a situation is ambiguous, such as when in a new environment or a new culture where the correct way to behave is unknown, individuals look to their peers or other bystanders for what to do.

An interesting example is the hit-and-run incident in China last year where a toddler was left injured whilst pedestrians and cyclists passed by ignoring her. The event was captured by surveillance cameras and the footage circulated on You Tube and through Chinese media resulting in global outcry.

Shocking as it was, what is not immediately apparent is the number of precedents in China where good Samaritans who stopped to help were blamed for the accident and even court-ordered to pay compensation. Thousands of locals who commented on the incident admitted that had they been there, they too would not have stopped to help.

Whilst the dilemma in no way makes this behaviour acceptable, I ask you this: Had you found yourself anonymous in the backstreets of a dubious neighbourhood in China that day and observed the locals ignoring this injured toddler, would you have stopped and called for help?


Lapinski, M. K., & Rimal, R. N. (2005). An Explication of Social Norms. Communication Theory, 15 (2), 127-147.

Peer Pressure in Decision Making


Social Influence

Society has influences on the decisions we make as individuals

“The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain.” ~Colin Wilson

Human beings are social creatures who rely on the opinions of others to aid in their decision making. Think of Stanley Milgram’s experiments regarding obedience to authority. There are many ways in which peer-to-peer interactions affect the ways in which we function, but compliance and conformity are two fairly major causes of social influence.

There are 3 main goals that individuals have in the long term:

  • Accuracy – in that individuals seek practical, consistent actions that are reproducible, through the information they already have and the actions that they do. Think of it as a need to achieve goals effectively and with the greatest perceived reward.
  • Affiliation – in that individuals seek gratification that their actions ingratiate them with other individuals. Think of it as a need to create social relationships with others in a meaningful, maintainable manner.
  • Maintenance of a Positive Self-Impression – in that people have a constant want to increase their own self-awareness so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it as a need to behave in a manner that boosts their pre-existing self image – through action, statement, belief etc.

There are a number of things that impact the choices we make – social norms, how much we like the people who’ve suggested the choice, how much we see the decision as a consensus, how much social approval we’re going to get etc. Think about the decisions you’ve made today – even something as small as what you wore will have been impacted by the social opinions of others. We elect not to stand out, and we elect to agree with what everyone else does.

To change societies opinion, we must bring options that don’t go against what the “tribe” want. Options that run in parallel to pre-existing ideas, that people can take on without standing out are most likely to cause changes in societies behaviours.

What do you think? Can you see these factors affecting the decisions you make on a day to day basis?

“New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.” ~John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding


Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and Conformity. Annual Review Pschology, 55, 591-621.