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.



7 comments so far

  1. ashfonty on

    Things that I fear are often totally irrational… such as zombies attacking! However, things that I perceive as risky as not neccessarily things that I would say I ‘fear’.

    While I would be concerned for my health with some applications of nanotechnology, such as its use in sunscreen, I wouldn’t say that I am fearful of the consequences. I think that it is something within my control – I can choose not to apply the sunscreen and therefore my perceived risk is not as high. There is also the fact that I see people everywhere around me applying suncreen and so don’t feel like its so risky. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’… that is until we all need medical attention for cancers etc that we’ve got from sunscreen application.

    Kate will probably be onto me about that paragraph, but it is just an example of something that could be risky. I would never say that I ‘fear’ suncscreen application/its potential effects.

    In response to your question however, I can say I don’t think I could merely stop fearing something because someone told me to. My awareness and understand of my fear would have to be built up before my beehaviour & intentions would change… especially regarding a zombie attack!

  2. gracehamilton35 on

    I do see you point, I think we all have a different idea of risk is. Mine I find is often associated with fear. I do fear the concequences of what will happen in the future for something we all use to readily, like sunscreen. (I do use sunscreen though, I fear skin cancer more). This fear I have may be due to something that happened or didn’t happen in my past that may have or have to to someone else.

    I think if someone had solid evidence that really made me believe I was wrong to fear something eventually over time I think that fear would fade.

    Thank you for your comment! – and shared fear of zombies!

  3. djasudasen on

    I completely agree with you in that our basic instinct is to avoid harm.

    At the same time, we expose ourselves to “risky business” all the time be it those few too many wines last night, driving home tired or soaking up the sun on a glorious summers day. It is esentially the level of harm we decide is okay.

    If I was told that zombies were going to attack, I probably wouldn’t believe it at first (although deep down inside I’d be telling myself that I always knew there was a reason for checking under my bed at night), but then would get pretty scared. Think Will Smith in I am Legend. I look at the zombies attacking as something out of my control. If they’re going to attack us, then I’m probably going to die anyway. Is it worth worrying about it now?

    Likewise, if I’m going to have health issues from unknown exposure to nanoparticles, then so be it. We’re all in the same boat. If I’m going to worry about that then I probably should also give up alcohol and any other risky vices I may have.

    I do however think it is our right to know if there are any concerns with nano-sunscreen. Even though I would probably use it anyway, at least it was my decision.

    • gracehamilton35 on

      As much as it is out of our hands whether zombies will attack or if nanoparticles will affect out health in the future, I still feel like I should be prepared. I think the fear we feel for these situations is dependant on how we were brought up and the experiences we have had. I do not think it is right to say we should not be concerned nor do I think it is right that we should.

  4. noelynn on

    To me “how risky is too risky” would be a situation faced or the risk that may cost my health and safety. It has to be a matter of life and death, then that is very risky.

    So yes, with the zombies, I would be fearful if their approach and appearance looks threatening to my existance. And off course, I’d escape for my life’s sake.

    • gracehamilton35 on

      The life and death situation does explore the more serious side to the matter, it may not be the most likely but I still feel it should be included in our judgement of what is risky! Thank you for your comment.

  5. rhiandyer on

    I was looking over that graph thinking about what I feared in an attempt to answer your questions and I noticed that I don’t really I don’t ‘fear’ anything. Anything that is ‘catastrophic and dreaded’ I just see as a painless death (problem solved). As for risks that are slow and long-term risk I figure everything is killing us slowly so it really is just a game of ‘choose your own poison’.

    It makes me wonder if there is a direct connection between what the people in this study ‘fear’ and what they see as the outcome. For example DNA technology is perceived as one of the most risky applications, yet I am willing to bet that if you boxed up some Alfalfa leaves and stuck it on a supermarket shelf with the label…

    “New Technology! Alfalfa leaves recombined with S2350 gene”

    “ Now with 3 alternative splices! – Scientifically proven to shed 5 kilos in just 3 weeks”

    … people would be willing to negotiate with their fears.

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