Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have faced a great deal of uncertainty, opening space for emotions to come into play.
As you’ll read below, emotional responses and scientific certainty play a large role in managing perceptions of risk.
Risk perceptions are the subjective judgment that people make about the characteristics and severity of a risk.
Risk perceptions are also the beliefs that a person holds regarding a risk, including beliefs about the definition, probability, and outcome of the risk.
Risk perceptions profoundly affect people’s ability to make informed decisions. These perceptions are thus of great concern to risk communicators, especially when the public health is threatened.
Emotional Responses to Risk Information
Strong feelings of fear, worry, anger, outrage, and helplessness are often evoked by exposure to unwanted or dreaded risks. These emotions often make it difficult for leaders, risk managers, and technical experts to engage in constructive discussions about risks in public settings.
Emotions tend to be most intense when people perceive the risk to be one of the following:
• Not under their personal control
• Managed by untrustworthy individuals or organizations
• Low in benefits
More extreme emotional reactions often occur when the risk affects children, when the adverse consequences are particularly dreaded (for example, cancer and birth defects), and when worst-case scenarios are imagined.
Desires and Demands for Scientific Certainty
People often display a marked aversion to uncertainty. Because of this, they use a variety of coping mechanisms to reduce the anxiety generated by this uncertainty.
This aversion frequently translates into a preference for statements of fact over statements of probability, which is the language of risk assessment.
People often demand that technical experts tell them exactly what will happen, not what might happen.
Risk communicators, therefore, have to think carefully about both emotion and demands for scientific certainty when managing communications.
Pathway Prompt: What are some scenarios where you’ve seen emotion and desire for scientific certainty affect perceptions of risk?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in 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.