Dennett-Thorpe, J (2017) Foresight review on the public understanding of risk: reconciling facts and figures [online] Lloyd’s Register Foundation. Available at: https://www.lrfoundation.org.uk/en/publications
With increasing technological and social complexity, risk plays an important role in our interconnected world. To manage risk wisely, we need to acknowledge its inherently subjective and multifaceted nature. Increasing the public understanding of risk is a critical factor in improving the quality of individual, business and political decisions in the face of risk.
An improved public understanding of risk can help us use our resources more wisely, and make choices that are more aligned with our values. It can inform the choice of products we buy – or avoid; whether to invest in upgrading a house in a floodplain; whether to take a medical scan. It can help us improve strategic and operational business decisions. It can also help us make policy decisions to manage risk, such as food and road safety, technical standards and certification, and carbon reduction and climate adaptation strategies. An improved understanding of the complexity with which risk can be perceived and assessed can help us have meaningful discussions and fruitful negotiations when we disagree, such as can happen with regards to nuclear power or food safety.
This foresight review explores what we already know about how we understand risk, and what it means for our behaviour and for the private and public risk management in our societies. The review notes some critical limits to this understanding, and identifies opportunities for increasing the public understanding of risk.
‘Risk’ is a term with many meanings. This review uses a definition that includes not only the analysis of technical risk assessments but all the dimensions that matter to people. A better understanding of risk in this wider sense would be of benefit to technical experts, public and private sector policy makers, managers, regulators and professionals, such as clinicians and journalists, who communicate with the public about risk. All of these are considered ‘the public’ in this report.
The review outlines the subjective and multifaceted nature of risk and how our perception(s) of risk impact our decisions.
- Our values and objectives influence how we view a problem and how we define and analyse the risk, and hence shape the results and the apparent ‘best decision’. Technical analyses are useful tools which help guide decisions and support risk management. However, they contain subjective elements which are often unrecognised as such.
- The results of any one technical analysis might not align with other people’s objectives and views. These views, as well as our own, often come from a rapid intuitive assessment of risky situations. These assessments derive from our experiences and values, and are informed by our objectives.
- These intuitive perceptions of risk are a useful guide. However, our intuition can also mislead us in various ways, especially because it confounds costs, benefits and probabilities by using an overall ‘feeling’ of risk. ‘Probability neglect’ is an example, where we invest too much effort and resources in trying to avoid (or achieve) a very low probability outcome, in response to a strong negative (or positive) emotional reaction to that possible outcome.
- Risk perceptions are not fixed; they vary between individuals and between socio-economic groups, and people’s risk concerns change over time.
Looking at why the public understanding of risk matters, the review explores the implications of these insights on multifaceted perceptions of risk for the communication and management of risk.
- Risk perceptions are liable to be magnified through social interactions, which means that relatively small events can be amplified to events with significantly larger social and economic consequences. Technologies, places and products can be stigmatised as a result, especially when the risk management response is perceived as inadequate. These reactions not only pinpoint social concern, but may also result in undesirable outcomes if these reactions are a result of misleading intuitive biases.
- The choice of boundaries and assumptions in technical analysis can have material impact on the results, and so being aware of this, as well as seeking to understand and include dimensions of public concern, can be important. When designing public policy, proposed policies may prove less effective, or even be unimplemented, if value-based dimensions of concern about risk are not considered.
- How risks are presented can influence people’s responses, for example, how the chance of an event is described. Choices about how a risk is framed and communicated are unavoidable and should be carefully considered.
- Our responses to low-probability, high-consequence events are not calibrated, showing either overreaction or neglect in planning for them, especially for events whose outcomes we have not experienced before. A better understanding of those risks by all members of the public, as well as suitable policy responses, can help rectify such failures.
Much of the existing research in to the public understanding or risk has been conducted in a Western context. There is a need to expand this into different cultures, both to understand what is truly universal and what important differences exist in the perceptions and responses to risks in different cultural settings.
There are opportunities for improving the public understanding of risk. Such understanding needs dialogue to understand the concerns of different groups about specific risks. Notably, it is not a top-down approach to inform people of the findings of technical analyses. There is an opportunity for trusted organisations to help in this, especially through developing risk-literate intermediaries and institutions. The emergence of new risks and new technologies provides new opportunities, as well as new challenges in studying and improving public understanding of risk.
The report ends with recommendations for Lloyd’s Register Foundation that focus on the newly established Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (LRFI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Although the recommendations are specific to the LRFI the Foundation itself may wish to draw on these recommendations in considering any further activities to support the public understanding of risk.
It recommends a multi-disciplinary but social-science based institute with an Asian focus. Through the use of in-depth real-world case studies that focus on existing as well as new and emerging risks, the Institute will be well positioned to advance the study of public understanding of risk and to impact real-world outcomes. The report recommends that the Institute adopts a framework that sees the understanding of risk as a dynamic process, which can be harnessed by working at the interface of technical risk assessment, intuitive risk perception and integrative risk management, and seeking iterative learning from interventions. In identifying and taking forward dynamic case studies, the Institute should work with partners and stakeholders who work with, or impact on, the general public, as well as harnessing new digital and social media technologies and data.