Friday, January 24, 2014

Managing the Perception of Risk

Paul Slovic:  Excerpted from here
Picture from HERE
Slovic...summarizes the key qualitative characteristics that result in judgments that a certain activity is risky or not. People tend to be intolerant of risks that they perceive as being uncontrollable, having catastrophic potential, having fatal consequences, or bearing an inequitable distribution of risks and benefits.
Slovic notes that nuclear weapons and nuclear power score high on all of these characteristics.
Also unbearable in the public view are risks that are unknown, new, and delayed in their manifestation of harm. These factors tend to be characteristic of chemical technologies in public opinion. The higher a hazard scores on these factors, the higher its perceived risk and the more people want to see the risk reduced, leading to calls for stricter regulation.

Slovic ends his review with a nod toward sociological and anthropological studies of risk, noting that anxiety about risk may in some cases be a proxy for other social concerns. Many perceptions of risk are, of course, also socially and culturally informed.

Reduction of the perception of risk involves emphasis on identifying ways to mitigate and control the hazard.

Unfortunately, human beings tend to compensate or normalize hazard.  They compensated for Anti-Skid-Braking by driving faster, leaving less space between themselves and the vehicle in front of them and by driving when adverse weather conditions would otherwise inform them to stay off the road.  There is little net actuarial evidence that ABS reduced the number or severity of accidents.  Seat belts, Air Bags, improved structural crashworthiness also contribute to the number of poker chips in the kitty that give drivers the margin of comfort to drive more aggressively.

One exception to the statements above are a small population of extremely risk adverse drivers.  These drivers view all decisions through the lens of risk.  Their first decision sort is an A pile-C pile risk sort where less than five stars goes into the C-pile.  That is, their first action is to restrict their universe of choices to 5-Star safety options.  These drivers do not bargain or barter away "risk chips".

People's irrational risk math compels lawmakers to prohibit certain high risk activities, like driving under the influence.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that many (but not all) DUI drivers will compensate for their slower reaction times by driving more conservatively.  Problems arise during the learning curve, miscalibration of degree of impairment, desire to avoid LEO attention by not driving significantly slower than most other drivers, inability to integrate secondary hazards (like slippery roads or increased traffic) into their compensation calculation.

The effect of the DUI laws skew the "distribution of risks and benefits". As my co-worker "Fast Eddie" said when asked why he stopped drinking, "Its not fun anymore." Having to blow into the horn was a real mood killer and put a major damper on his love life.

 To reduce perceptions of risk

  • Emphasize the parameters that are controllable
  • Grant authority to control as many parameters as possible (morphine pump)
  • Populate memories with stories where people survived a risk or were strengthened by them
  • Denominate risk in a currency that people are already comfortable with.  One study denominated risk in "cigarette equivalents".  Another common actuarial currency is "hundred miles driven"
  • Populate "Canary in coal mine" indicators.  That is, help people identify signals they can use to switch from risk-comfortable mode to risk-adverse mode.  Example:  "I know I am getting angry when my breathing gets heavy, my face gets hot and my fists clench.  I need to take a break when any of these start to happen so I don't say or do something we will all regret."  Given that self-awareness, a risk adverse person can then discuss hot-button issues in a relationship.


To increase the perception of risk

  • Decrease the perception of control.  "If you do that then you will be at the mercy of...."
  • Point out that their (high risk) decisions destroy the autonomy and control of potential co-victims (like family).
  • Emphasize catastrophic, fatal, capricious and arbitrary consequences of the fickle hand of fate.  Graphic is good because the "logic" is happening at the emotional "motivation" level, not at the rational-logical level.
  • Demand logical, sequential tasks as gatekeeper to risky activity, a checklist for example: (Body armor, pepper spray, multiple escape routes, valid passport...maybe I don't want to date ERJ's daughter).  Checklists throw down bread crumbs that lead from the emotional mind to the rational mind.  The device in Fast Eddie's car was defeatable but it required tasks be done in a certain order.  The necessity of performing 1-2-3-4...activates the parts of the brain that also pair Action-Consequence.
  • Tilt the Risk-Benefit trade-off
  • Work the last sentence of the quoted passage: "Many perceptions of risk are, of course, also socially and culturally informed."
I will add to this list as more information becomes available.

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