One of the deepest, most pervasive, and most central cultural filters is an individual’s worldview.
Worldviews are important because they profoundly influence how individuals, groups, and organizations behave. Worldviews influence perceptions and thinking on a wide variety of issues. At a deep, often-unconscious level, worldviews impact how people make decisions.
If information about a risk, threat, or high-concern issue is consistent with people’s worldviews, they will typically pay attention to the information.
If the information is in conflict with their worldviews, people will often ignore or discount the information being shared. Understanding worldviews is an essential element in effective risk, high-concern, and crisis communication.
There are five major types of worldviews to consider:
Individualism is characterized by beliefs that (1) groups, organizations, and communities function best when there are few rules, regulations, and restrictions; and (2) people should be free to make their own choices and decisions without interference from outside bodies.
People who believe in individualism often use pronouns such as “I,” “my,” and “me.” Risk, high-concern, and crisis messages are often most effective when they focus on individual choice, options, control, benefits, and preparedness.
Egalitarianism is characterized in beliefs that (1) priority should be given to freedom, equality, and fairness; (2) people should reject hierarchal ranks; and (3) people should be free to make decisions without interference: people’s decisions should stand for themselves without regard to the author’s social status, hierarchal position, or other societal constructions.
Risk, high-concern, and crisis messages are often most effective when they focus on freedom, equality, and fairness.
Communitarianism is characterized by beliefs that individuals, groups, organizations, and communities function best when people work together toward a common goal and good. People who believe in communitarianism often use pronouns such as “we” and “our.”
Risk, high-concern, and crisis communication is most effective when it focuses on teamwork and group preparedness.
Hierarchy is characterized by beliefs that (1) priority should be given to rules, regulations, and restrictions set by established and traditional authorities; (2) groups and organizations function best when there are clearly defined and hierarchically ordered ranks; (3) groups and organizations function best when people agree to behave in accordance with clearly defined social roles and established social norms; and (4) if it is good for the group it is good for the individual.
Risk, high-concern, and crisis messages are often most effective when they focus on rules, regulations, standards, and accepted procedures.
Fatalism is characterized by beliefs that (1) future events are determined by destiny; (2) people have no power to influence the future; (3) people should be apathetic or resigned to that which will happen; (4) because of destiny and inevitability, acceptance is more appropriate than resistance.
Risk, high-concern, and crisis messages are often most effective when they include concrete positive narratives demonstrating that change or impact is possible (a personal story of crisis avoidance or recovery, ideally relating to a person known to the stakeholder).
More about Worldviews
Culture-based worldviews play a strong role in risk, high-concern, and crisis communication and intersect with other belief systems. However, people seldom can be described by one discrete worldview, and which, if any, worldview is applied depends heavily on context.
Worldviews can help explain why a message about a risk or threat can result in radically different perceptions and judgments about that risk or threat. The explanation is not that people are irrational; it is that perceptions and judgments about risks and threats are in large part the products of culture and worldviews.
People selectively attend to risks in a manner that expresses and reinforces worldviews, cultural norms, beliefs, and values.
How can your understanding of worldviews change the way you manage your risk, high-concern, and crisis communications?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about perceptions of risk can be found in module eight of Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication. This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.
The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.
More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Vincent Covello
Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.
See, e.g., Gustafson, P. (2008). Gender differences in risk perception: Theoretical and methodological perspectives. Risk Analysis 18, no. 6, pp. 805–811; Flynn, J., Slovic, P., & Mertz, C. (1994). Gender, race, and perception of environmental health risks. Risk Analysis vol. 14, no. 6, pp. 1101–1108.
Flórez, K.R., Aguirre, A.N., Viladrich, A., Céspedes, A., Alicia De La Cruz, A., & Ana F. Abraído-Lanza, A.F. (2009). Fatalism or destiny? A qualitative study and interpretative framework on Dominican women’s breast cancer beliefs. Journal of Immigrant Minority Health 11 (4): 291–301.