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Not All Risks Are Created (and Perceived As) Equal

Not All Risks Are Created (and Perceived As) Equal


David Ropeik, the author of the aptly titled ‘How risky is it, really?‘ book, has collected a fascinating list of risks we perceive in a highly illogical, subjective way. Scientists and communicators, hope this will help your outreach.


Rationality, mathematics and statistics play little to no role when it comes to risks about food, flying, chemicals or the weather.


Here are the most interesting examples of risk perception:


  • “New” risk versus “old” risk. The MERS virus, which has killed 190 people in Saudi Arabia in the past two years, causes fear because of its mysterious origins and potential for global impact. When the H1N1 virus was first discovered, it had the same effect.
  • Man-made risk versus natural risk. Community groups may oppose construction of a new electric substation or pipeline because of safety concerns that have little to do with safety performance. Yet few are outraged about naturally occurring radon gas in the home. According to the EPA, radon kills about 20,000 people a year and is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
  • Imposed risk versus chosen risk. Hearing that an oil refinery is being built in your town might make you outraged; yet moving into a town with an existing oil refinery doesn’t affect you the same way, because you are making a choice to live there.
  • No-benefit risk versus risk with tradeoffs. Despite San Francisco’s predisposition toward earthquakes, it’s still a popular place to live. Likewise, highway driving can be dangerous, but your car gives you the freedom to go where you want to go.
  • Gruesome risk versus regular risk. Death by shark bite says it all.

Not All Risks Are Created (and Perceived As) Equal 2



              • Distrustful risk versus trustworthy risk. People are more frightened of risks that come from people, companies or governments they distrust.


  •  Uncontrolled risk versus controlled risk. You’re more likely to die in a traffic accident than in a plane crash, but flying in a plane means you must depend on the pilot’s skills. For many people, this loss of control feeds their fear.
  • Risk with uncertainty versus risk with certainty. Advancements in science, from genetically modified food to nanotechnology, often face opposition because many people don’t understand them — and don’t want to understand them.
  • High-awareness risk versus low-awareness risk. After the Sept. 11 attacks, concern about terrorism was acute because awareness was so high. Meanwhile, fear of street crime and climate change declined because those concerns were no longer top of mind.
  • Risks for children versus risks for adults. A product posing a danger to children will always draw more attention than one posing a danger to adults. Think about all those news reports on “The Five Most Dangerous Toys Under Your Christmas Tree.”
  • Personalized risk versus generalized risk. The Sept. 11 attacks significantly raised fear levels in New York and Washington, because people living and working in those cities were directly affected. Concern about future attacks wasn’t as high in Des Moines or St. Louis.


Communicators, both in the corporate world and government, must be aware of these to properly formulate messages and respond to crises.


When you challenge myths, argue against pseudoscience, or address a skeptical public, make sure to identify which risk you’re dealing with – as the perception will be vastly different in each case.


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