Perceptions of risk come into play in almost every aspect of our lives. People are constantly weighing risks versus benefits, and never more so than during the past year, when the world was plunged into a pandemic.

Risk perceptions profoundly affect the risk decision-making of leaders and the ability of people to make informed decisions. In other words, people will make wildly varying decisions based on what they perceive to be the level of risk.

For this reason, risk communicators are well served to understand why people overestimate (or underestimate) risks, and communicators also need to understand the consequences.

What Are Risk Perceptions?

Risk perceptions are the subjective judgments people make about the characteristics and severity of risks.

Risk perceptions are also the beliefs that a person holds about a risk. These beliefs include the definition, probability, and outcome of the risk.

Why Do People Over- or Underestimate Risks?

People often overestimate some risks and underestimate others.

For example, people tend to overestimate the risks of dramatic or sensational causes of death, such as accidents at manufacturing plants or waste disposal facilities. Yet people underestimate the risks of less dramatic causes of death, such as asthma, emphysema, and diabetes.

Overestimation or underestimation of risks is caused in part by the tendency for risk judgments to be influenced by the memorability of past events and by the ability to imagine future events.

A recent disaster, intense media coverage, or a vivid film can heighten the perception of risk.

Conversely, risks that are not memorable, obvious, palpable, tangible, or immediate tend to be underestimated.

The Consequences

Overestimating and underestimating risks come with specific and undeniably serious consequences.

Adverse consequences of risk overestimation:

• dysfunctional behaviors

• stress

• anxiety

• dread

• confusion

• hopelessness

• helplessness

• misallocation of risk reduction resources

“A recent disaster, intense media coverage, or a vivid film can heighten the perception of risk.”

Adverse consequences of risk underestimation:

• apathy

• denial

An example of risk perception is being carried out while a new year gets underway. As COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed around the world, people’s perception of the risks of taking or not taking the vaccine can have wide-ranging effects on the entire community.

Can you think of any risk decisions you make every day? Of these decisions, can you find instances where you either overestimate or underestimate 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

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.