“Every day, as human beings, the choices we make and the actions we take are influenced by the risks we perceive to our personal safety.
“These perceptions are therefore critical to our safety outcomes – whether we, or someone else, gets hurt or killed – but also to the life opportunities we allow or deny ourselves.”
So says Dr Sarah Cumbers, who since 2019 has led the Evidence and Insight team at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, charged with growing a global knowledge base on what works to improve the safety of both life and property. One of the Foundation’s key investments in this area is the World Risk Poll – the first global study of worry about, and harm from, risks to people’s safety, based on over 125,000 interviews with people in 121 countries.
“One of the real unique qualities of the Poll is that it measures both experience and perception of risk and, crucially, allows us to directly compare the two.
“So we can fill critical data gaps – especially in countries where little or no official safety data exists – that help governments quantify and understand the risks their citizens are exposed to and where they are suffering harm. But we can also identify where people may over- or under-estimate certain risks they are exposed to, and where their behaviours may put them at greater risk of harm as a result.
“What we want to say to policymakers charged with keeping people safe is this: perception matters.”
One clear example provided by the Poll is on the issue of workplace safety. In most countries across the world, people consistently worry less about the possibility of being injured at work than their likelihood of saying that they had actually experienced a workplace injury in the past. The most extreme discrepancy is seen in Italy, where over half (54%) of people say they, or someone they know personally, has experienced harm from their work, and yet only 16% say they are worried about this happening. This is what is referred to as a ‘worry-experience gap’.
“In this gap”, says Dr Cumbers, “lies an opportunity to improve safety”.
That is not to say that there are not legitimate and understandable psychological reasons why people may worry less about likely risks, and less about unlikely sources of harm.
As Sarah explains, “while many people may be more likely to be injured at work than they are to be the victim of violent crime, they may worry more because they perceive the potential consequences of crime, if it does happen, as much worse. If people perceive the consequences of workplace injuries as minor, and their country has adequate social safety nets in place to support them while they cannot work, they may worry less.”
Meanwhile, some risks are more front-of-mind because they are visible and experienced every day, which can make it hard for policymakers and campaigners trying to raise awareness of risks that are less visible and seem more abstract to achieve cut-through, and to encourage compliance with risk mitigation measures – even when the risk in question is potentially more deadly.
Sarah points to the covid-19 pandemic as a prime example, as illustrated by the World Risk Poll data.
“In each edition of the Poll, we start off by asking people what, in their own words, is the top risk to their personal safety. When we asked this question in 2021, we expected that Covid-19 might come in first. But in the final analysis, it only came up fourth. The most frequently named risks to people’s safety were more or less the same as what they had been in 2019: road-related collisions, crime and violence, and other (non-covid-related) health conditions.
“The lesson in this for those trying to manage future pandemics and other global threats is that if you want to achieve compliance with your counter-measures, you need to construct and communicate those measures in a way that takes into account and is compatible with the myriad other day-to-day risks people are struggling to deal with, and doesn’t expose them to greater harm from other sources as a result.”
As well as taking the temperature of the top perceived and experienced risks to people’s safety worldwide, the latest World Risk Poll takes deep-dives into particular topical areas of risk, including data and AI, resilience to climate change, and violence and harassment at work – with the data all available to be dissected by country and demographic groups to show how risk perceptions and experiences vary around the world.
To hear Sarah’s talk – ‘How safe do you feel?’ – and learn more, visit the Hay Festival website.