Risky Business: How to Communicate About Risk

With the gathering storm on the East Coast, I was reminded of an exchange that I’ve often had with non-Californians over the years. It goes something like this:

Friend: California is beautiful, but I could never live there. I’m terrified of earthquakes.

Me: Yes, but you have winter. Many more people die every year from snow and ice-related car crashes than from an earthquake. And you know for sure that snow is going to happen at least several times a year. It could be a decade before another big earthquake hits.

Friend: I’ll take my chances.

Me [basking in warm sunny February weather]: Me too.

I’m not trying to rub it in for those of you on the East Coast, but trying to make a point about our perceptions of risk.

Having been through several big earthquakes, I know that there is a very small chance of one being personally catastrophic (though every time I’m up on a ladder I wonder whether that will be the moment the big one hits), and there is a much bigger chance of it being simply inconvenient. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be when (not if) it happens. But while I went on a huge emergency supply buying binge after 9/11 after I went through training to be on my neighborhood’s Community Emergency Response Team, I have to admit I’ve become complacent and not kept the supplies up to date. As the memories of that day, as well as of the last big earthquake ’round these parts, grow more distant, my feelings of urgency have faded as well.

Many factors impact how people think about a particular risk, such as:

  • Whether the problem has ever happened to them or someone they know
  • How severe the consequences are
  • Who is most affected
  • How common it is perceived to be
  • Whether it can be prevented
  • Uncertainty about how or when it happens
  • How often it is mentioned in the news or portrayed in entertainment media
  • Whether it affects a lot of people severely at the same time.

So, how can we communicate effectively about risk in a way that will make people want to take action, but without causing panic? The University of Toronto’s Health Communication Unit has a couple of publications about risk communication that are oldies but goodies:

While these publications are worth reading in their entirety if you find yourself having to communicate about risk as part of your job (or even as a well-meaning friend), here are some quick tips from “Developing Your Messages” to guide your efforts:

  • Respond as completely as possible to audience biases, misconceptions, feelings, concerns and needs surrounding the risk. That means you have to find out what people already know and believe about the issue and create your response based on that foundation.
  • Use language and concepts that the intended audience already understands, whenever possible. Don’t use jargon, acronyms or complex scientific descriptions that the audience may not understand.
  • Use magnitudes common in ordinary experience. Very small or very big magnitudes may be difficult for a nonscientist to conceptualize. Instead of stating a risk as 0.05, say that about 5 out of 100 people will be affected.
  • Emphasize cumulative probability over extended periods of time, instead of one-shot probabilities, when applicable. People are more likely to overestimate the likelihood of a risk like HIV infection for a single encounter, and underestimate the risk of repeated exposures over time.
  • Instead of expressing probabilities in quantitative (numeric) terms, try to use a qualitative term that is close in meaning. Rather than saying there is a 88% probability of something, use a term like “very likely” or “a good chance” to describe the risk.

Read the rest of the tips here (pdf). And I’d better go check the extra water in the garage and make sure we have working batteries for the flashlights. For my readers in the snow, be careful and stay safe. Hopefully your city’s snow removal plan is better than DC Mayor Marion Barry’s was when I lived there during the huge Blizzard of 1996: Spring.

Photo Credit: Night Owl City

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