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Ten Risk-perception Factors


Explanations > Meaning > Ten Risk-perception Factors

Dread | Control | Nature vs. man-made | Choice | Children | Novelty | Publicity | Propinquity | Risk-benefit tradeoff | Trust | So what


Actual and perceived risk are often very different. We use all kinds of short-cuts to guess the real risk and

Psychologist Paul Slovic has identified ten factors that influence how we assess risks:

1. Dread

When we think about something we try to predict what will happen, often pessimistically. We then have feelings of dread as we imagine terrible, awful outcomes.

This exaggeration makes us assess the risk as being higher than it is.

2. Control

We all have a need for a sense of control and and often perceive that we have more control that we actually have.

This 'control illusion' leads us to perceive risks as being less than they actually are.

3. Nature vs. man-made

Sometimes natural disasters seem less risky than human-created ones, perhaps because we have more control over human events. The reverse effect can also be true for the same reasons -- the lack of ability to control such as the weather can also make it seem more scary.

4. Choice

If I have choice between two equally risky items, then I may well perceive that the risk is lower than it actually is, probably from the sense of control that having a choice gives me.

5. Children

We are programmed to care for children and so risks that affect them may well seem greater than those that affect adults. We thus worry about children's safety and put extraordinary effort into ensuring their environment is relatively risk-free.

6. Novelty

Risks that we have not encountered before cause us to spend more time thinking about them and may well seem more risky. This may be because, as a safety factor, we often up the risk assessment of unknown risks.

7. Publicity

If a risk has a lot of public attention, such as terrorist events, then, due to the availability heuristic, the risk is likely to be assessed as being more significant than it actually is.

8. Propinquity

If I am the subject of risk, then I am likely to assess the risk as being higher than if I am a bystander. It is thus more difficult to make a decision to undergo a surgical procedure if you are the person affected.

9. Risk-benefit tradeoff

If there are opportunities as well as risks mixed up together and a choice could lead to benefits, this can make the actual risk being seen as being less than it actually still is.

10. Trust

Where the risk involved the actions of others, how we assess the risk will be significantly affected by the extent to which we trust the other party or parties involved.

So what?

When making decisions, take these into account and try to understand the real, not the perceived, risk. When influencing others to make a decision, you can use these factors to change their assessment of the actual risk.

See also

Ellis' Irrational Beliefs, Trust, Theories about decision-making


Hillson, D. (2009). Swine flu and risk perception, Project Management Today, June 2009

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