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Incoporating Cultural Competence into the Risk Communication & Community Engagement Strategies of the Environment Agency

by Akinkugbe , Seinde , MS

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considered as irrational in comparison to that of the scientific experts Slovic (1982).
“While experts might have information and objective probability of hazard, local people
directly affected by hazards make choices from several alternatives and take actions
based on their personal perception of risk rather than on some objectively and
scientifically derived measure of threat (Shakya, 2009 , p. 30).

What Influences Risk Perception - Theoretical perspectives
Outrage factors
Different factors influence an individual’s perception of risk. There are numerous findings
in the field of risk psychology that has established that the perception of risk is a dual
process dominated by facts and intuitive feelings. Individuals normally use a set of
instincts with the information at hand to measure how frightening something or an event
feels Ropeik (2008). The public’s perception of risk is widely influenced by outrage
factors which are usually based on shared cultural values Beecher, Harrison, Goldstein,
McDaniel, Field and Susskind (2005). The unequal balance of risk ranking between
experts and the public comes as a result of the experts viewing risk as the Magnitude +
Probability, while the public tend to see it as a combination of both Hazard + Outrage
placing more emphasis on the outrage factors (Sandman, 1987).

Our brains applies these outrage factors in the assessment of natural disasters such as
flooding incidences as well as the other hazards such as smoking Sjoberg (2000).
Sandman (1987) outlines 12 outrage factors drawn from Slovics work on the
psychometric risk model. He reiterates that individuals often use this for subjective risk
assessment, actions and response towards environmental hazards. These factors
naturally present themselves in conflicting pairs of a positive and negative analysis of
information Blake (1995). For instance positive factors which are deemed safe will
minimize outrage and risk perception while negative factors deemed risky will increase
the sense of outrage and amplify the perception of risk Ivens (2010). The theory is based

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on the premise that outrage is the principal determinant of risk perception. When people
are displeased, they are likely to think they are endangered, but then it is the opposite
when they are less distressed (Sandman, 2003).

Figure 4 :Derived from the psychometric risk model of Paul Slovic (1987)
Not memorable
Not dreaded
Individually controlled
Morally irrelevant
Trustworthy sources
Responsive process
Controlled by others
Morally relevant
Untrustworthy sources
Unresponsive process

How does this empirical theory fit into the framework of flood risk management? Well
for starters not all factors apply to flood risk perception. However the author will
highlight those factors applicable to this study i.e., fairness, unresponsive process,
untrustworthy sources, risk vs. benefits and memorable.

Voluntary / Involuntary


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People need and value choice. A risk taken voluntarily such as when people choose
to live in a riverside location is less frightening than when imposed on people (Ivens,
2010). Flooding falls within both categories of involuntary / voluntary risk. For
instance houses are often built in flood plain area by housing authorities and
developers. However individuals who buy properties in this area may trade the risk
against the benefits of a riverside property, or even for the low cost of a property in a
flood plain area. A research looking at the factors influencing the risk appetite of
some ethnic minority communities, found that individuals were willing to trade the risk
of living in a flood risk area with the low cost of properties in that area, and the desire
to live in close knit community (Cannon, 2008). People tend to value choice, but then
show outrage when we are coerced into doing something or when we find ourselves
disproportionately at risk Blake (1995). .

Fair / Unfair
Is there an existence of environment disparities of race and class? Are the cost and
benefits of environmental hazards and policies equally distributed? Are people
disproportionately exposed to hazards? People who are normally at the receiving
end of environmental policies without access to the benefits are naturally outraged -
especially if the reason for their misfortune is grounded in politics rather than science
Sandman & Lanard (2005). Research has been carried out in this subject area
identified as the Environmental justice movement. “A concept based on the notion of
social justice, equality and a healthy environment for all” (Capacity Global, 2007) - a
right which the most vulnerable (i.e. minority groups and low income earners) in a
community frequently see violated due to government insensitivity, and the cost and
benefits of technological advancement (Capacity Global, 2010). “The environmental
justice movement believes risk assessment is undemocratic. They also believe that
risk assessment is a way of trading human health for profit and a means of
legitimizing exposure to toxic chemicals. The movement considers risk assessment

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an evil industry and a tool developed by those who wish to oppress racial and ethnic
minorities” (Simon, 2000, p. 556).

Hurricane Katrina did open our eyes into this subject area as people with limited
resources and power habitually have to endure greater risk than their neighbours
Beecher, Harrison, Goldstein, McDaniel, Field and Susskind (2005). Poverty means
that these individuals have no say in environmental matters and are sometimes
excluded from making decisions that tackle this uneven distribution of risk. This
exclusion imposes a huge and unfair cost on these individuals as it is often known to
lead to underinvestment in disaster management schemes Pastor, Bullard, Boyce,
Fothergill, and Morello – Frosch & Wright (2006). There are many negative
consequences when those in power neglect or do not listen to the poorest people
Capacity Global (2007). The risk associated with activities assumed to be unfair, are
judged to be greater than the risk from fair activities Ropeik (2004). Greater outrage
of course means greater risk thus the importance of incorporating environmental
justice principles into environmental policies and disaster preparedness initiatives
cannot be underestimated (Pastor , Bullard , Boyce , Fothergill , Morello – Frosch &
Wright , 2006).

Untrustworthy sources
Although this has been discussed earlier. People are generally more afraid when
they don’t trust the agency supposed to protect them Byrd (2005). Public perception
of risk is amplified or can even swing either way if the lines of communication are
from untrustworthy sources Beecher, Harrison, Goldstein, McDaniel, Field, and
Susskind (2005). This is often as a result of the agencies previous history
incompetence, honesty, motives, inconsistent information. This has been noticed in
the agencies flood awareness activities in Old Windsor as the community has visibly
posted on their website not to trust any information from the Environment Agency

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due to its inconsistencies Old Windsor Parish (2010). As earlier said, trust lost is
always difficult to gain; hence it is imperative that engagement officer bear this in
mind when communicating risk.

Unresponsive process
Is the agency arrogant? Does it show empathy and respond to the concerns of the
community? Does it assume an undistinguishable approach when communicating
with the public or does it even make risk decisions without consulting with the public?
Failing to recognise the needs and infinite views of the public habitually creates an
awkward atmosphere in risk communication. Less outrage is likely if the process of
risk communication is open and those communicating are considered trustworthy and
competent Morrow (2009).

A memorable event makes the risk easier to imagine and seem more risky to people.
“Hazards that are exotic, memorable and dreaded are considered more risky than
those that are not memorable and not dreaded” (Byrd, 2005, p.29). This may help
explain why one’s personal experience of a flooding incidence will increase the sense
of outrage and amplify the perception of risk. It may also explain why flood plain
residents or victims are much more receptive to flood wise campaigns than residents
who have never experienced it. Proximity of the risk to the individual could also be a
factor. Although research shows that individuals who have never been a victim of a
flooding incident before are less likely to take any preventative measure, even if they
live in a flood risk area Brandhorst (2001). People’s perception of flood risk tends to
differ based on their memories from personal experience. For instance, minority
groups tend to relate flood risk to their county of birth. This is often known to give
them a false sense of security of being safe in the UK and the belief that extreme
weather events do not occur here (Robertson, 2008).

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Risk vs. Benefits
It is always difficult to motivate people who do not see the long term benefits in
precaution measures. Fishcoff (1995) suggests that individuals need information
about both the risks and the benefits of any mitigation activity to take any
precautionary measures. “If there is a perceived benefit in a specific choice, the risk
associated with that behaviour or choice will seem smaller than when no such benefit
is perceived” (Ropeik , 2004 p. 58 ). “A health program may seem more attractive
when described in terms of the lives that it will save, rather than the lives that will still
be lost. Explicitly showing the cumulative benefits of a protective measure may
enhance its attractiveness, even though they can be inferred directly from its shortterm
benefits” (Fishcoff, 1995 p.141).

Quite similar, a change in flood response behaviour was noted in the Carlisle flooding
in 2009 as individuals who received flood warnings that did not result in flooding,
were often sceptical about the benefits of responding to early flood warnings.
Residents tended to wait for visual evidence of imminent flooding before taking
actions Environment Agency (2010b). For local communities to take resilient steps
and form coping mechanisms for hazards of extreme weather conditions requires a
full and practical understanding of the impacts of these extreme events (O’Neil,
2004). Sandman & Larnard (2005) maintain that stressing the magnitude more than
the probability is essential in risk communication. Hence a flood risk communication
programme may be more successful and attractive if the psychosocial socio and
economic benefits are well framed and sold to the public.

The above are some of the complaints levelled against the Environment agency and
could help explain why some of the risk communication programmes are
unsuccessful. Discounting these outrage factors in risk management arguably lead to

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a loss of public confidence in government agencies Frewer (2004). This could help
explain the apparent difficulty in creating flood risk awareness and mitigation actions
in some communities at risk.

Frames of reference
One of the principal intuitions offered by study of social and cultural influences on risk
perception has been to highlight the need for risk communications to be sensitive to
the norms and worldviews of the target audience Vaughan (1995). Each person
holds a distinctive social construction of the world, their frame of reference, which
devolves from their socio-cultural background and experience. The framing of a risk
issue will therefore affect how the communication is perceived and processed and its
eventual outcome Druckman & McDermott (2008). If a message is not matched to
the frame of reference of the recipient it may fail. Pidgeon, Hood, Jones, Turner &
Gibson (1992). The frame of reference for weather and flood agencies is to assume
that they hold accurate information about the risks of natural hazards and that their
function is to motivate the public to take mitigating action. Their viewpoint is that the
danger is real and that the public underestimates the risks and will not respond
appropriately. Differing views on risk are often the result of the diverse frames of
meaning that different social groups give to an issue Wynne (1984). Hence it is
important that risk communicators find a common ground with the public to reach a
compromise and a satisfactory mutual understanding of the main issues of risk
perception (Bradbury, 1989).

Bradbury (1989) further maintains that a neglected area in the field of risk analysis is
the issues of differing views of the concept of risk. Although the technical approach
used by experts might be useful for structural mitigation measures, it is inappropriate
for public risk communication. A firm understanding of the social construction of risk is
vital to the success of a risk management programme (Frewer, 2005). The importance

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of framing risk issues in a way that identifies how sociocultural variables and past
experiences, may influence decision making and ones reaction to risk communication
(Vaughan, 1995). The perception of risk is one subject area that describes how factors
such as socio-economic status, education, occupation, employment status, religion,
culture and personality influences ones decision making process Skinner (2003). It is
an essential part of the decision making process people go through when information
about a risk event is received and the decided course of action; therefore an
understanding of the theories on risk perception is essential when designing a risk
communication programme (Plattner, Plapp & Hebel, 2006).

Conclusion of chapter
In conclusion, this chapter has examined the arguments surrounding the
communication of risk between scientific experts and lay people. It also examines the
concept risk perception and identifies those outrage factors that influence perceived
risk. In addition , it investigates the deficit model of risk communication and proposes
that a risk communication programme that offers the fact but fails to take individual
perception into consideration is solely incomplete in a multicultural society. The next
chapter examines various theories of risk perception and those innate feelings and
beliefs that influence perceived risk.


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Chapter 5.0
This chapter examines various theories of risk perception and those innate feelings
that influences perceived risk. In addition , it looks the other factors such as the media
and religious beliefs. This chapter will give more insight into the affective elements that
shape an individual’s perception of facts.

There are numerous theories and frameworks associated to the development of risk
perception. Several of these studies have attempted to test, measure and analyse the
impact of risk perception on risk related behaviour. Although a few of these theories
may lack adequate validity, some have produced useful insights into why people make
different estimates of the dangerousness of risk Morrow (2009). Amongst the lead
contenders in this subject area are those from the psychological school of thought:
Heuristics and biases, Psychometric paradigm and the affect theory - The
anthropology and sociological perspective: Culture theory – And the interdisciplinary
framework known as the social amplification or risk theory.

5.1 Heuristics and biases
In the late 60s and early 70s, a series of studies conducted by Amos Tversky and
Daniel Kahneman revolutionized academic research on human judgement. Their study
based on the central notion of the heuristics and biases framework, provides empirical
evidence that people did not make logical decisions in judging risk Tversky &
Kanhneman (1974) .They argue that judgement under uncertainty often depended on
a constrained number of simplified heuristics rather than extensive algometric
processing Gilovich & Griffin (2002). According to them, these simplified heuristics are
informal methods of problems solving and strategies used to process complex
information, but it can produce a myriad of errors in reasoning. These likely errors are
not random but scientifically related to decision processes and are thus subject to bias.

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Tversky & Kanhneman (1974) maintains that three main psychological heuristics
categorises types of cognitive decision shortcuts used by humans to judge the
intensity of a risk. They identify these groups of cognitive shortcuts namely as:
representatives, anchoring and adjustment and the availability heuristics. However for
the sake of brevity, the availability heuristics will be the main focus as it relates more to
coastal risk perception and management.

5.2 Availability Heuristics
The availability heuristics is a phenomenon “whereby individuals judge the probability
of an event by the ease in which instances could be brought to mind” (Tversky &
Kahneman, 1973 p. 207). People tend to be biased by information or events that can
easily be retrieved from memory, events they have been a victim of, or even selective
reporting from the media Lichtenstein, Slovic, Fischoff, Layman & Combs (1978). The
possibility of a vivid imagined cause of harm can be overestimated, since Individuals
often use these memories to correlate an incident. Using availability heuristics often
leads rare events to an absurdity bias; whereby events that have never happened are
not recalled and thus considered to have a zero probability Yudkowski (2007).
(Kunreuther, Hogarth and Meszaros 1993; Keller, Siegrist and Gutscher, 2006)
suggest that general apathy towards the threats of flooding event maybe due to the
inability of individuals to conceptualise flood events that have never occurred. For
example when an individual lives in a flood plain area with no known history of a
flooding event, they tend to judge flood risk communication as absurd and refuse to
take actions such as buying flood insurance or making personal flood plans in advance
Keller, Siegrist and Gutscher (2006). So when a disaster strikes, these individuals
have to rely on government assistance and private donations as seen in the
Queensland Victoria flooding incidence. In the aftermath of a disaster, people are likely
to adopt extra precautionary measures while disaster mitigation policy becomes top of
the agenda for politicians Squair (2009). However case studies show that this only last

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