Everyone loves a shortcut.

Even your brain.

Shortcuts play a big role in risk communication because the human brain uses mental shortcuts to calculate the probability of adverse outcomes.

These shortcuts allow the brain to filter through a small amount of all the available information to form perceptions and make decisions about risks, threats, and concerns.

For example, the brain often assigns greater probability to events that are easy to recall. The brain also assigns greater probability to events when frequently reminded of these events by the news media, friends, or colleagues.

The brain also overestimates the occurrences of rare and dramatic causes of fatalities while underestimating the frequency of more common causes of death.

Deaths from botulism, for example, are overestimated and thought to be more common than they are. Deaths from diabetes and stroke, however, are estimated to be less frequent than they are.

Eight Mental Shortcuts

The following are some of the most important mental shortcuts the brain uses to perceive and judge risks, concerns, and threats.

1. Information availability

2. Conformity and relativity

3. Anchoring and adjustment

4. Framing

5. Affect/feelings/emotions

6. Overconfidence

7. Confirmation bias

8. Loss aversion

Information Availability

The availability of information about an event (information that is accessible or easily remembered) to the brain often leads to overestimation of its frequency. Because of availability, the brain assigns greater probability to events of which it is frequently reminded.

Conformity and Relativity

Conformity and relatively are the tendencies for people to adopt attitudes and behaviors relative to the attitudes or behavior of others, because others are doing something, or because others believe it is true.

Anchoring and Adjustment

Anchoring and adjustment are tendencies on the part of the brain to give undue weight to the first piece or one piece of information in assessing probabilities. The first piece of information functions as the reference point or anchor. It sets the tone for that which will follow.


Framing is the tendency for the brain to reach conclusions based on how information is framed and presented. Different frames, such as the words used, have a profound effect on perceptions of risks and threats.


Affect is the tendency for perceptions and judgments of risk to be strongly influenced by feelings and emotions. An “affect” is the instinctive emotional and subjective response. Feelings are facts for the person experiencing them. The feeling can be positive or negative and can guide risk and threat judgments.


Overconfidence is the tendency of the brain to overestimate abilities to avoid harm. It is most evident and visible when people perceive they are in control of a situation. Unfounded overconfidence leads to reduced feelings of susceptibility.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency of the brain to search for and accept information that is consistent with existing beliefs and to ignore information that is not consistent with existing beliefs. Once a belief about a risk is formed, new evidence is frequently made to fit the belief, contrary information is filtered out, ambiguous data are interpreted as confirmation, and consistent information is seen as “proof.”

Loss Aversion

Loss aversion is the tendency of people to place more weight on losses than on gains. People don’t like to lose what they already have. As a result, people are often willing to pay two to three times more to avoid a loss than they are willing to pay for an equivalent gain.

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication 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, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found at the link above or by emailing info@pathwaycommunication.com.

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, speaker, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.