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.


4 comments so far

  1. shortfletch on

    “Is it acceptable to use these manipulative techniques” to get our message across?

    I say yes!

    Does this mean I may have a future as an aid to a dictator? I sincerely hope not.

    Marketers have been using these techniques for years. Why else would there be so many average Joe’s and puppy dogs selling me household products on tv and billboards. More importantly, I think not using techniques like positive framing, or affective images is like shooting ourselves in the foot. If you know that having a positive frame will help communicate your message, but are too worried that you are manipulating people, so you purposely pick a negative frame (which is less effective), then what is the point of even trying?

    Still perhaps I am less concerned then I should be with the ethics behind manipulating someone for their own good. What do other’s think?

    Save this article if you are doing other science communication courses because this paper might be extremely useful to cite

  2. selinamj on

    I agree. I don’t see why we wouldn’t use all the tools available to us to ensure that we were able to communicate our message effectively. Like you said we see evidence of this constantly in everyday life.
    There is no way that these tools are new but I feel this article does do a really good job at highlighting why they are used so frequently (and to such great success).
    People allow themselves to be manipulated everyday and I don’t see why risk communication shouldn’t take advantage of that. People don’t want to have to make up their own minds on an issue, they just want to go with the flow because life is easier that way.

  3. rhiandyer on

    I am going to agree with Shortfletch with the same amount of enthusiasm.

    When faced with complex decisions our rational minds are limited by the capacity of our working-memory. Unfortunately our working-memory is not that big and when it is filled up our decisions have to be based entirely on emotion.

    Memorising seven numbers, for example, is enough to make people choose to eat chocolate cake (more positive affect) instead of a fruit salad (more positive cognitions)(Shiv, 1999). At that point they are relying purely on heuristics, which, by admission of the authors of your article is not all that accurate.

    So we dont walk around all day trying to memorise numbers but when faced with a complex issue (eg. climate change) there are far more that seven things to consider at once. So I think individual decision-making on these issues will always be based on emotion.

    Why let people rely on an inaccurate decision-making process just because the problem is too complex?

    The brain exists only as a product of interactions between the body and the
    environment. It moulds itself to function in the environment that we experience. We might as well have a hand in shaping that environment to guide decision-making using the best knowledge we have, or you can be sure that there will be a crackpot internet conspiracy website that will do it for you.

    Shiv, B. (1999) Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making. Journel of Consumer Research 26(3): 278-292

  4. noelynn on

    The post was fairly well-structured, making it easy to follow through reading it. It so true how the human brain is able to handle information that is involve emotions and decision-making. A study conducted on Stress, anxiety and performance, by Hardy (1999) pointed clearly how capable the human brain is able to handle information through stressful situations.
    A human brain has the potential to perform adequately through this situations by thinking it through and by experience. As Rhian highlighted, I also agree that, for as long as the situation or environment is familiar to the ability of the brain to sense it, irrationality is bound to occur.
    So being irrational in decision-making, to my opinion, would only mean the human brain is subjected new pressure against time.

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