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.
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.