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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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for a short period as individuals return to their old habits of underestimating when risk
is imminent and over estimating when risk probability is low (Raschky , 2011).
Robertson (2008) suggests that to make accurate risk judgements about natural
disasters, people must perceive it in probabilistic terms. Flood risk information is
normally communicated as a probability i.e. 1:100 or 1% chance that a flood plain area
will flood in any one year. However probability is often not well grasped by the lay
public. Research suggests that people do not make use of the probability model when
judging risk, they make use of their rule of thumb heuristics (Slovic, 2000).

Availability bias plays a prominent role in the perception of natural hazards but is
frequently criticized due to its reliance on recency / emotional saliency rather than
statistical probabilities. Wardman (2006) refutes the claim that risk perception is
habitually dependant on emotional saliency. He argues that this faulty generalisation is
often used by government officials to dismiss public concerns about risk as ignorant
and emotional. This is believed to undermine due democratic process in governmental
policies and risk communication Ault, Gleason & Riley (2000). Whatever the politics
may be, availability only accounts for a minute portion of risk perception. The theory is
said to lack sufficient validity when describing how people perceive risk probabilities in
the face of adversity Sjoberg (2000). However it offers useful insights into the
perception of risk.

5.3 Psychometric Paradigm
An effective way of studying perceived risk is to construct a taxonomy or classification
for hazards that can be used to understand and estimate responses to their risk. In
other words produce a cognitive map of hazards based on the hypothesis that the
identified characteristics inherent in risk Ho, Shaw & Lin (2005). This method is fairly
useful in explaining general apathy amongst the public and why people so often
overestimate the risk from a hazardous activity Bronfman, Cifuentes, Dekay & Willis

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(2005). A similar approach to this model is the psychometric paradigm first developed
in 1978 by Fischoff et al but has been further replicated extensively. Fischoff, Slovic,
Lichtenstein, Read & Combs (1978) suggest that an individual’s perception and
evaluation of risk generally depends on a number of qualitative and quantitative
factors. They identified characteristics such as voluntariness, dread, control,
knowledge, catastrophic potential, novelty, equity - and a combination of outrage and
hazards discussed earlier - as a known determinant of risk decisions. Studies
conducted within the psychometric framework often adopt the above risk determinants
to describe or gauge reaction to hazardous events Morrow (2009). In various studies,
respondents are instructed to make quantitative judgements in regards to the intensity
of several hazards and the desired level of regulation. Their verdicts are then mapped
to those risk characteristics earlier identified, to create a risk matrix (risk characteristics
x hazards) Ho, Shaw, Lin & Chu (2008).

In a risk matrix compiled by Fischoff, Slovic, Lichtenstein, Read & Combs (1978) they
found out that there were some significant factors fundamental to this qualitative
dimension - namely the dread and risk characteristics. These huge variances indicate
that public perception of risk is easily swayed by factors such as unknown / unfamiliar
nature of a risk and the perceived dread Sjoberg, Moen and Rundmo (2004). Much of
this is attributed to the availability bias i.e. mass media, trust, culture fatalistic views,
gender and a respondents age which will be examined in subsequent paragraphs Ho,
Shaw, Lin & Chu (2008). Although other underlying factors have been identified in
other studies, it is only fair to describe the subjective perception of each hazard in two
psychological dimensions Ho, Shaw and Lin (2005). The identification of these two
psychological dimensions enables risk researchers to map out a number of hazards in
a two factor space. Such classification is valuable for explaining risk attitude among
the general public and also help clarify the differences in risk perception between the
lay public and experts Jenkins (2006).

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As earlier said
The concept risk means different things to different people. When
experts judge risk, their responses correlate highly with technical
estimates of annual fatalities. Lay people can assess annual fatalities if
they are asked to and produce estimates somewhat similar to that of the
experts. However their judgement of risk is related to hazard
characteristic and this is largely influenced by cultural and demographic
factors (Slovic, 1987 p. 283).

The model has been tested in a number of countries and has used to identify cross
cultural differences in the perception of risk Siegrist, Keller and Kiers (2005). The main
insight offered by this hypothesis is based on the assumption that social and cultural
factors influence risk perception. The perceived risk of natural hazards is mainly a
function of the characteristics of the hazard itself and that of the stakeholders Ho,
Shaw, Lin and Chiu (2008). “In judging the magnitude of risks, people from different
cultures could be expected to differ on two counts: firstly because they live in
objectively different risk environments, and secondly because they perceive their
environment differently” (Teigen, Brun & Slovic, 1988 p. 127). The psychometric model
does offer more explanatory power in the study of risk perception. However most study
within this framework has been criticised for using data that has been averaged over
participants prior to study Bronfman, Cifuentes, Dekay & Willis (2005). “One could of
course claim that mean risk ratings are the focus of interest, not raw data which
reflects more directly to the risk actually perceived by the subjects” ( Sjoberg , 2000 p.
4). Most studies use an aggregated data for principal analysis, hence the differences in
individuals risk rating is often neglected (Siegrist, Keller and Kiers, 2005).


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Regardless of this criticism the model has shown that it is possible to quantify and
predict public risk perception and its framework can be adapted to accommodate an in
depth study into public risk perception Schmidt (2004). Single hazards like flooding can
be studied using the psychometric paradigm, they can be represented in a two or three
way psychological dimension to explain and predict risk judgement Jenkin (2006). In
addition, flood risk observation is also influenced by the availability and socio
demographic factors; hence a psychometric study into this field may provide insights
into the communication of its risk Ho, Shaw and Lin (2005).

5.4 Culture Risk Theory
The culture theory also known as grid / group culture theory is regarded as a serious
alternative to the psychometric framework and several proponents claim that it
describes individual differences in perceived risk better than other theories Sjoberg
(1998). Developed by anthropologists Douglas and Wildavsky (1983) and later made
functional for quantitative study by Dake (1991), this perspective examines the
importance of world views and culture on risk perception. It focuses on the cultural
context in which risk perception is formed and the disparity among societal groups in
risk decisions Pidgeon and Beattie (1997). The model maintains that various culture
develop their own socio construction of risk and strongly affirms that attitudes towards
risk are a derivation of social norms Braman & Kahan (2003). These social constructs
of risk can be explained by reference to four distinct cultural forms: egalitarians,
individualist, fatalist and hierarchy Brenot, Bonnefous and Marris (1998). The model
assigns people into these groups depending on a group and grid of cultural forms
varying from high (+) low (-). A high group way of life exhibits a high degree of
collective control and typifies the combinations of a group or strength of group identity,
while the low grid reflects the degree to which individuals are constrained by social
norms (Buck, 1989).


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The Matrix below shows the typology of world views. It depicts how the Group and
Grid theory generate the four cultures. It plots the acceptance of social controls on the
vertical axis and the commitment levels on the horizontal axis.

Figure 5: Source: Schwarz & Thompson (1990)

For instance the egalitarians tend to be more concerned about technological and
environmental risk. They detest the social inequity so often associated with
environmental disasters and distrust the social and political structures Sjoberg (1997).
Everyone is equal without the leaders, political structures and differentiation in status
and they adhere to collective action to equalize the distribution of wealth, power and
status Oltedal, Moen, Rundmo and Klempe (2004). The general premise is that people
should be treated as equals on certain dimensions, irrespective of the race, ethnicity,
religion, political affiliation or background. In a large part, it is a response to the abuse
of power by the political authorities and often used to suppress policies Rayner &
Cantor (1987). The hierarchical is a sharp contrast as this group supports deference to


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traditional forms of social and political authority. Individuals who subscribe into this
ideology have a clearly defined role, are loyal to the authorities and believe that
inequalities are fair and deserved Braman & Kahan (2003). This ideology is typical of
bureaucracy and clearly makes a distinction of an individual’s role relative to the roles
of other members of the group Tansey & Oriordan (1999). It emphasises rules and
order while the egalitarian perspective stresses on equality and solidarity (Rudd,
1999). The individualist cultural form conforms to individual autonomy and believes in
minimal state imposition. Individuals who fall within this category are fairly similar but
show little obligation to another. They believe in a voluntary market approach and selfregulation
and everyone is allowed to interact with other groups Sheen (2010). The
Fatalist cultural form takes little or no part at all in social life and believes that life is
constrained by rules imposed by other cultural forms. This makes them quite
uninterested about risk issues since what they fear is mostly decided by others. They
virtually leave everything to fate and assume that danger is unavoidable (Oltedal,
Moen, Klempe and Rundmo, 2004).

Each group (egalitarians, individualist, fatalist and hierarchical) is associated with a
risk handling style and choose to defend their way of life and institutional
arrangements associated with it Braman & Kahan (2003). In doing this they define
which risk to accept or avoid , how these risk should be distributed and who should be
blamed when things go wrong Pidgeon & Beattie (1997). Hence in line with their
commitment to equal distribution of resources and wealth, egalitarians are usually
more sensitive to environmental and technological risk Sjoberg (1998). They believe
that the associated benefits authorises the regulation of commercial activities which
produce disparities in wealth and status Sjoberg (2000). On the other hand, the
Individualist often perceive environmental risk from commercial activities as low since
they see it as an opportunity or compensation for high risk burdens Schmidt (2004).

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And so does the hierarchist who feigns ignorance at environmental risk in order to
shield private orderings from intrusion, and defend the commercial and governmental
elites from rebuke Parrado (2010). Both hierarchy and individualist have a distinctive
apprehension of social deviance and the fragile nature of economic institutions - while
the egalitarians tend to disregard this Braman and Kahan (2003). The fatalist tends to
leave everything to fate and have a nonchalant attitude towards risk issues (Sheen,

The grid and group model can be applied to flood risk management by using the four
polarised views. The different cultural forms can be associated to distinctive
management ideas of how to face flood risk prevention and response. For flood
prevention, a hierachist typified by its high group and high grid would consider that
hazards can be predicted accurately and managed by experts. In the responding to
flooding incidents, emergency plans arranged in hierarchical order i.e. (incident
command system) from the top to the lower cadre of political administration would be
necessary Parrado (2010). However if contingency plan is not effective, those who do
not support the command system are blamed for faulty emergency plans Parrado
(2010). The fatalist characterised by their indifferent approach to world views would
see flood risk as a hazard that can neither be prevented nor avoided. Thus
preparations for flood incident will be low on their priority list because Mother Nature
and commercial activities are to be blamed for their destiny. This is synonymous to
religious groups and perhaps ethnic minority groups; it will be discussed in subsequent
chapters Campbell-Nelson (2008). The individualist is not really applicable to flood risk
management. However the egalitarians would believe in equal right for all and that
everyone ranging from the scientific expert to the public should have an input into flood
prevention policies such as building of flood defences. Anything short of this is seen as
unfair and could lead to outrage; a principal determinant of risk perception (Parrado

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The culture theory offers adequate explanatory power in the political conflict over
various types of societal risk, it also explains the diversity of risk perception i.e. what
people fear and why they fear it. It has, and it can be a useful tool in studying risk
perception in a multicultural society Morrow (1997). However it has received limited
empirical support and criticised for its basic typology. It is argued that the cultural
forms are too rigid and inert, whereas ways of life vary and can be dynamic (Sheen,

5.5 Social Amplification of Risk Theory (SARF)
The technical assessment of risk and the various risk perception paradigms have
historically been viewed as totally disparate. Conventional probabilistic risk analysis
could not give a valid reason why events with relatively low statistical risk sometimes
evoked major public concern (amplification), whilst potentially more serious events
received comparatively little public attention (attenuation) Hazard Forum (2001). The
framework (SARF) largely proposed and developed in the works of Kasperson, Renn,
Slovic, Brown, Emel, Goble, Kasperson and Ratic (1998), posits that “hazards interact
with psychological, social, institutional, and cultural processes in ways that may
amplify or attenuate public responses to the risk or risk event” (p.177). Every
hazardous event i.e. flooding tends to hold signal values in relation to its inherent risk
(characteristics). An individual’s social construction or reality and perception of risk is
largely influenced or stimulated by variables such as the risk characteristics, personal
experiences, risk information or even images received from their surroundings Marris,
Langford, Saunderson and Riordan (1997). The social construction of risk framework
uses the communication theory as a model to depict how the socio construct of risk
signals is processed by individuals and transmitted via amplification stations or chain
such as: the media, scientific experts, social and interpersonal networks, cultural
groups pressure groups and public agencies (Slovic & Weber , 2003). These signals

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either amplifies attenuate or shape risk behavioural response depending on the
transmitter (Petts, Horlick-Jones, Murdock, Hargreaves, McLachlan & Lofstedt, 2000).

To put it in clearer context, Morrow (2007) maintains that “a risk event changes over
time as each element in the ripple process occurs and interacts with other elements”
(p. 17). All links in the communication chain contains a filter by which information is
processed and understood. When a risk signal is received, the receiver filters it by
using mental heuristics to interpret or make sense out of it based on individual and
social values Renn (2011). Human interaction with ones cultural and peer groups are
known to be major filters for risk amplification. Individuals often share the same value
with their cultural groups and normally confide within themselves to interpret risk,
validate risk signals and take precaution measures Kasperson, Renn, Slovic, Brown,
Emel, Goble, Kasperson and Ratic (1998).

All amplification channels attach social values to risk information in order to draw
implication or put pressure on governmental policies. For instance pressure groups
tend to amplify risk policies to get the authorities to make a u-turn on risk decisions
while the authorities tend to play down risk to avoid public criticism or even sway the
public perception Walker-Wilson & Fuchs (2009). However the major filter of risk
signals is the media who are known to amplify risk yet abandon the values of
investigative journalism due to information hunger Petts, Homan, Breakwell & Barnet
(2002). This will be discussed in the next paragraph. In comparison to other risk
perception theories, the SARF framework offers an explanatory power in identifying
why people sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between low-consequence/high
probability risk and high-consequence/low-probability risk or even amplify or play down
risk Morrow (2007). Twigger – Rose (2002) suggest that people normally attenuate
(play down) risk as a way of coping with life eventualities. According to her,
underestimating risk is very dangerous as it can give people a false sense of safety.

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Flooding events is one of such hazards that are generally played down by the public
and this may help explain why people who live in flood plain areas generally ignore
warning signs yet pay more attention to hazards with low-consequence/high probability
risk (O’Neil, 2003).

5.6 The Media and Risk Communication
As mentioned earlier, one of the principal amplification agents of risk information is the
media. Recent disastrous events have proved its role in educating, leading and even
misleading the general public during an emergency Karpowicz-Lazreg and Mullet
(1993). The media both print and electronic plays an important role in risk mitigation
and disaster management. For instance it can be a useful tool in creating public
awareness about flood risk; early warning of risk and the transmitting of risk
information about affected areas to the public and responders National Institute of
Disaster Management (2009). However the prevailing notion about the media is that
they often “sacrifice objectivity for sensationalism” (Wahlberg & Sjoberg, 2000, p.33).
In other words engage in selective and biased reporting that emphasises drama,
wrongdoing and conflict (John & Covelo, 1987, p.179). Members of the public
habitually need up to date and reliable information prior, during and even after major
incidences. However the media tend to exaggerate some element of a disaster while
down playing other components Soumerai, Ross-Degn & Kahn (1992). This inaccurate
portrayal of incidence usually leads to some sort of second disaster as it can throw
people into panic flight and obstruct the prioritization of disaster risk issues by
emergency responders Fischer (1994).

A large proportion of media outlets and researchers refute this claim, but events like
Hurricane Katrina and most recently, the Haitian earthquake shows some relative link
between public media consumption and perception of risk Solnit (2010). The media is
an active intermediary for risk information between the public, scientific experts,

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