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Date archive for: December 2015

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner

Fear sells. It is a marketing tool.  It is a funding tool.

Risk Science and Politics of fearThis book is the best compact summary of the challenges faced by communications professionals who need to decrease “fear” around a project or idea.   People are pre-disposed to fear the unknown due to a number of biases built into our brains – which were engineered more for living a hunter gatherer lifestyle than modern life.

Gardner first discusses the Fast/Slow-System1/System2-Gut/Head systems in our brain, and how “Gut” is dominant, and easily influenced.

There are a number of built in biases that can also boost risk once there is a tendency to it.  The better the “Fearmonger” is at drawing a detailed picture (verbal or real), the more effective they will be.   Confirmation bias can help after that.   There are a number of well-established biases/fallacies that can exacerbate things.  (The example rule and the rule of typical things, the good-bad rule ).  Understanding the real fear can be a challenge as “head” rationalizes how “gut” feels and why.  They may “make up”  reasons, or grab handy stats or studies without scrutiny.  It’s not that they are being deceitful. Answers are, to some degree, a conscious rationalization of an unconscious judgment.

Confirmation Bias + group polarization, + culture= Problems.

Paul Slovic’s research points to a number of things that increase perceived risk:

  • Dread (correlates with catastrophic, involuntary, & inequitable.)
  • Those with the risk do not get the benefits
  • Large fatalities in one event
  • Unfamiliar risks
  • Not Understanding
  • Lack of personal control
  • children/future generations at risk
  • Identifying with victims
  • Untrusted institutions
  • Media attention
  • Recallable accidents
  • Irreversible
  • Personal risk
  • Man made risks
  • Close in time

Ideas that may help to decrease Risk Perception

  • Habituation (Nuclear in France or Ontario)
  • “Head” can overcome “Gut” but it is hard
  • There is a large cultural/political predisposition component
  • People choose their risks.  They are influenced by friends, media, neighbours.
  • Trusting the source of info is essential. Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose. Even trusted sources have a hard time getting past strong public feelings.
  • Presenting numbers as more concrete, positive  can help.
  • Experts are wrong to think they can decrease fear by “getting the facts out”.
  • If people think the risk of something is high, they see the benefits as low, and if benefits are high, they can see the risk as low.  (Good-Bad Rule)
  • There is a low fear subgroup. They track as “Individualist”, heirarchist, (vs. Egalitarian, communitarian).  They tend to have better numeracy skills.