PUR SA(N)G – Perceptions of Uncertain Risks in Societal Groups (WC2014-015)


Starting date: 01/04/2014

Uncertain risks can be broadly defined and are often assessed very differently by actors and groups with varying backgrounds. The general public, concerned groups, NGO’s, professional groups and policy makers evaluate risks along different dimensions and tend to emphasize different aspects of the same risk. Examples can be derived from diverse domains such as that of food safety, nano-technology, (new) infectious diseases, but also that of (environmental) incidents and disasters. The way in which uncertain risks are assessed is not only a product of the available knowledge, but also of the many uncertainties around potential risks and their effects, media coverage and polarization between stakeholders (Spurgeon, 2002).

Perceptions of risk and coping with them differ per hazard as well as per societal group (Briggs, 2009) and are only partly dependent on the type of risk. Risk is also a social construct, which means that people might think differently about the acceptability of risks depending on their values. Some risks, especially when there is an external cause - and thus a risk producer- may easily create public commotion and worry (Petrie, 2001). Cultural aspects and the social context play an important role in this process and at the individual level a sense of control is key to the outcome of the assessment. Also important is whether the public perceives the communicator to be trustworthy, which is based in public perceptions of motives, honesty and competence (Siegrist et al., 2003). However, core element is how the issue is framed. Issue framing should incorporate the definitions and perceptions of uncertain risks of all relevant parties. This should not only be done by characterizing types of uncertain risks as has been put forward by e.g. Renn et al. (2011) and the HCN (2008), but also by incorporating the criteria and dimensions along which uncertain risks are evaluated, such as aspects of equity and fairness, health, long versus short term effects. Knowledge about these typologies and criteria are a prerequisite for adequate communication about uncertain risks. This is not an easy task: there is often a mismatch between perceptions and communication.

In the framework of this proposal the distinction between technical-scientific aspects of risks and evaluative/subjective aspects of perceived risk by various societal groups is of specific relevance. These are often at odds with each other (Slovic, 1987, de Hollander, 2003). While the expert assessment of risks is essential to the making of informed choices, at the same time citizens are entitled to their own views on the acceptability and personal meaning of the risks. A method which links quantitative estimates of risks with public opinion and societal acceptation of risks is a prerequisite for successful reconciliation between perspectives. Successful riskcommunication needs to take all these aspects into account and needs to be matched with the way in which risks are framed. Risk communication takes place in a dynamic context involving many stakeholders. Sometimes risk perception evolves and may amplify due to social dynamics.

How this happens and how this is dependent on the perceptions of different societal groups and their determinants in specific cases needs to be studied further. Risk communication may have different aims, such as translating scientific evidence into lay people terminology, responding to public commotion and worry and communication aimed at influencing behaviour. In a more public centred approach the different perspectives on risks and related values and concerns should be taken into account. In this way, a more public centred risk communication policy can be designed.