ISGP Podcast: Risky Business

Are your responses to disease risk more analytical or emotional in nature? How can disease risk be better communicated to the individuals in order to elicit appropriate public health responses?

It’s abundantly clear that risk — whether concerning food safety, climate impacts, or infectious disease — is inherently hard to understand and communicate. Emotional thinking, which tends to place a lot of emphasis on personal or one-off experiences. Misunderstandings about risk can easily cause overreaction. However, when individuals assess risk through rational analysis multiple dimensions of risk are taken into account, including the severity of the consequences and the likelihood of the event.

People’s understanding of risk, though, can be inherently flawed. Slight shifts in communication tactic can result in wildly different interpretations, even when the content of what’s being communication remains the same.Consider a rare, harmful event that is expected to occur with extremely low probability. If that risk is communicated as occurring in let’s say 1% of exposed individuals, people will tend to perceive it as much less risky than if they were told it was going to occur in 1 out of every 100 exposed persons.

For effective risk messaging to be formulated, there is a need for cultural and societal issues to be understood and not simply dismissed as irrelevant…which can, unfortunately, happen easily when they don’t align with technical assessments of risk.

However, the acceptance of misinformation, made ever more common with the popularity of social media creates confusion and even unrealistic fear regarding the spread of diseases.

The development of clear, evidence-based messages for the public presents great opportunities to reduce the social and economic costs of disease, which can be massive.

All of these ideas were part of the debate of Dr. Paul Slovic’s policy position paper titled “Communication Challenges in Managing Social and Economic Impacts of Emerging Infectious Diseases.” The paper was debated at an ISGP conference, convened at George Mason University, titled Emerging and Persistent Infectious Diseases: Focus on the Societal and Economic Context. Dr. Slovic is a professor of psychology and president of decision research at University of Oregon

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