What is known about how people perceive, take and communicate risks?

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What is known about how people perceive, take and communicate risks?

Human judgment dictates that physical consequences of hazards are objective, however perceptions of risks associated with those hazards are highly subjective and as a result risk has been defined in a number of ways. Risk can be viewed as the probability and/or seriousness of undesired consequences or the variance of all consequences about their mean. Research into this topic has been tackled descriptively by psychologists and has looked at why people take risks, the factors that affect their perception or appraisal, their propensity to take risks and the best techniques for risk communication.

Slovic (1987) identified three risk appraisal factors, basic dimensions connected with the perception of risk. The first is "Dread Risk" characterised by a perceived lack of control, catastrophic potential, fatal consequences and the unbalanced distribution of risks and benefits. This dimension is closely related to the general public's perception of risks for example associated with nuclear power stations. The second risk appraisal factor is "Unknown risks". These are hazards for which the risks are as yet unknown and delayed in their expression of harm. For example, the risks associated with mobile phones. The final risk appraisal factor relates to how widespread the effects are of a risk where the greater the number of people exposed to a threat from the risk the greater the perception.

Risk perception can be distorted depending on the assessor of the risk. However research has illustrated that both lay people and expert's assessment of risk involve human judgement and are subjective however experts perception are viewed as more objective. Slovic (1979) concluded that lay people perception of risk are related to more so to 'Dread Risk' and how widespread it effects, showing a high correlation of factors 1 and 3 where appraisals are made cognitively, whereas experts concentrate on the annual fatalities of the risk and make appraisals normatively looking at statistics. For example when asked to rate 30 different events in terms of risk, college students placed nuclear power as the greatest hazard. However nationally respected risk assessors placed nuclear technology twentieth. They perceived it as less of a risk than riding a bicycle, which is an accurate objective perception of annual deaths.
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Sprent (1988) identified ten common distortions of risk. Two such distortions of risk are the notions that concentrated risks are worse than diffuse risks and involuntary risks are worse than voluntary risks. Research has also found that we regard involuntary risks, such as poisoning from contaminated food as worse than voluntary risks such as smoking even though there is a much greater risk of death associated with the latter. This irony was humorously expressed by Chauncey Starr (1969) who noted that "we are loathe to let others do unto us what we happily do to ourselves!"


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