Risk perceptions

Jeroen Warner (WUR)

People are bound to see risks differently because they are differently affected by it – their exposure and level of vulnerability to the risk is different. But this is not all.   While analysts work to establish and communicate objective risk, this is not what  people act on. They act on subjective risk, that is, the risk they perceive, how they think and feel about it. While experts may claim to have better knowledge of risk  based on scientific methods and evidence, Science and Technology Studies show that they themselves may also have a ‘subculture of risk’ that brings considerable biases, such as faith in technology over faith in people.    Brief, we all have risk perception filters exaggerating some risks and underestimating others – their exposure to risk and their vulnerability in the face of risk. People who depend on others or live in isolated places tend to feel more vulnerable. (Mild) risk can give people a sense of excitement and adventure. For our present purposes, it is key that perception and cognition reflects cultural values. 

Next to this we have communication filters - all links in the communication chain filters information, amplifying some and attenuating others. Information carries different (positive or negative) connotations for different cultural groups, because they make different sense out of it. People turn to their peer group to validate their risk perception and information. Risk perception crucially depends on how much people feel in control with respect to the threat  – a car passenger feels more at risk in traffic than the driver. This helps us understand why socially dominant categories (males, whites, adolescents) have a lower risk perception than less powerful categories: females, non-whites, the old) who may be more aware of their individual and collective vulnerabilities to disaster. Parents responsible for young children or people without permanent employment can be expected to feel more at-risk from natural hazard than others.  Local people also have very relevant knowledge. Some of their knowledge may strike the experts as superstitious or misguided, but long exposure to risks in their environment may make local people better at ‘seeing the signs’ (of the rate of river rise, fish or bird behaviour etc) than outsiders. Dialoguing about risk  perceptions and remedies can help supplementing scientific knowledge by local knowledge, bringing mutual validation of assumptions and observation of risks.   Such a dialogue requires building and/or showing trust; a willingness not to be an outsider.. Cultural theory indicates that close-knit cultures  that fear of ‘outsiders’ and of ‘a non-specific, invisible and uncontrollable threat’ drives perception significantly.  For socially marginalised or isolated groups, ‘the government’ may be seen as outsiders - they are more likely to lack systemic trust, and may harbour theories about the government causing risks to them, e.g. when a house suddenly fissures. The nature of the risk matters: people fear things they cannot see (e.g. radiation, microbes) more than things they can (traffic).

Apart from risk perception, the perception one can protect oneself against risk is key. Protection motivation theory claims this is based on:

  • the perceived severity of a threat,
  • the perceived probability of the occurrence, or vulnerability,
  • the efficacy of the recommended preventive behavior,
  • the perceived self-efficacy

The work of Tim Harries’ shows that people who feel they have no action perspective will tend to ignore disaster risk. Thus we find people considering themselves safe living in floodplains, in landslide-prone areas at the toe of volcanoes. Blind faith in the state, in God, in fate, or in others may prevent them feeling responsible for self-protection 

A contemporary example is evacuation in flood events in a coastal Dutch city. During the EDUCEN project Thomas Jansen carried out perception research in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, a city that regularly experiences mild flooding but has not seen a major flood events in over 60 years. People have been conditioned to rely on the government in times of disaster; ‘vertical (self)evacuation’ is a new phenomenon :Jansen found that:  

  • A majority of households indicated to prefer the evacuation option of trying to evacuate within your own home or home environment.
  • A little over one third of the households chose the option of trying to evacuate outside of the municipality of Dordrecht.
  • Only a very small number of households indicated to prefer towards local emergency shelters