Risk is not perceived the same way by all people. Individuals, groups, and society grade risk by a wide range of scientific, psychological, social, economic, political, and cultural factors.

The possibility of adverse consequences influence public decisions about the acceptability of a risk, and deciding which risks are acceptable is typically based more on risk perception factors than on scientific facts.

The following are three of the many factors affecting how people evaluate and accept risk.


People are often more concerned about activities and actions that are perceived to be involuntary, coerced, or imposed on them (for example, exposure to chemicals or radiation from an accident at an industrial facility) than about activities or actions that are perceived to be voluntary or chosen (smoking, sunbathing, talking on a cell phone while driving, or mountain climbing).

Scope/Catastrophic Potential

People are typically more concerned about activities and actions perceived to be cataclysmic and in which harm, fatalities, and injuries are grouped in time and space (for example, harm, fatalities, and injuries resulting from a major release of toxic chemicals or radiation) than about activities or actions where harm, fatalities, and injuries are scattered, occur over a long period of time, or are random in time and space (automobile accidents).


People are typically more concerned about activities or actions perceived to cause harm and to be unfamiliar or exotic (for example, leaks of chemicals or radiation from waste disposal facilities or outbreaks of unfamiliar infectious diseases such as Zika, West Nile virus, and Ebola) than about activities or actions that are familiar and routine (household accidents).

Pathway Prompt: What factors affected your decisions about a recent situation that involved 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 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, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.