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Risk perception and communication 

Risk perception and communication
Risk perception and communication

Baruch Fischhoff

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date: 29 September 2020

Public health depends on laypeople’s ability to understand the health-related choices that they and their societies face. The study of risk perception examines that ability. The study of risk communication examines the processes that determine how well communications with lay people help (or hinder) them. Although focused on decisions involving risk, such research necessarily considers potential benefits as well, if only the benefits that come from reducing risks (e.g. through medical treatments, lifestyle changes, or improved air quality). Communication is a two-way process. Without listening to people, it is impossible to understand what they know and value, hence to provide them with relevant information in a comprehensible form. The basic science of behavioural decision research describes general processes of judgment and decision-making that find specific expression in risk-related decisions. It provides the conceptual framework, methodology, and theory for this chapter. The research is conceptually straightforward. First, analyze the decisions that people face, in sufficiently precise terms to identify the information that is most critical to them. Second, describe decision makers’ existing beliefs and values. Third, develop communications that bridge the critical gaps between what people know and what they need to know, in order to have the best chance of making choices that achieve outcomes that they value. These steps are interdependent. Descriptive research can reveal goals, obstacles, and capabilities that the analyses missed; communication failures can force prompt additional descriptive research into decision-making processes. Effective communication requires four kinds of expertise: (a) subject matter specialists, for ensuring accuracy; (b) risk and decision analysts, for characterizing choices and identifying critical information; (c) behavioural scientists, for describing existing beliefs and values, then designing (and evaluating) communications; and (d) communication practitioners, for executing sustainable programmes. Behavioural decision research provides guidance on two topics central to this endeavour. One is how to identify threats to risk-related decision making and ways to overcome them. The second is how to measure how well communications work. Without such evaluation, not only may specific communications fail, but experts may come to doubt their audience’s competence. If laypeople are held responsible for failing to learn from flawed communications, then they may be needlessly denied the opportunity for active participation in health decisions. One should no more release untested communications than untested pharmaceuticals. The chapter seeks to help experts to help laypeople to choose wisely by communicating effectively.

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