‘Perception of risk’ by Paul Slovic, Part 2: What factors influence risk perception?

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There are several factors that have been identified as having the biggest impacts on the perception of risk: control, familiarity, catastrophic potential, and level of knowledge available to non-experts. Nuclear power, unfortunately, ticks most of these boxes for a majority of the lay public, and this makes it extremely difficult to communicate the actual risks.

It seems to me that these influencing factors can also¬†work in the other direction. Take ‘familiarity’ for example. When the atomic age was first under way, there was probably a reasonable good ‘popular science’ understanding of the way that nuclear power worked, and this familiarity probably helped encourage the growth of the nuclear industry — with support rallied by events¬†like the ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech — and acceptance in the wider public sphere (aside from a vocal minority). But this familiarity has come back in another form, familiarity with the disaster narrative. When people think of nuclear power now, the unerringly refer to events like Chernobyl, the disaster has become the familiar, which in turn seems to push the perception of the risk of nuclear events higher and higher.

Another factor that comes into perception of risk, is what Slovic calls the ‘signal potential’ of an incident. This refers to the capability of a single incident of imply further and more far-reaching impacts of the accident. The example he used was that of the difference of a trainwreck and a nuclear disaster like what happened at Three Mile Island. Hundreds of people may be killed in the trainwreck but, because it is a supposedly ‘closed’ event, there will be little alarm in the wider public. Compare this however, with Three Mile Island. No one was killed as a result of that accident, and the wider consequences were relatively minor, from a human health standpoint (not to belittle the suffering of those that were affected). And yet, the public reaction to the event was wildly over the top, and from here came the majority of the costs of Three Mile Island, the huge public backlash caused massive increases in regulations and the requirements for building nuclear reactors (which massively increases costs, and makes nuclear less competitive), but also in the massive financial and social losses sf the companies involved, but also the communities around Three Mile Island, which suffered under the weight of the negative image of the area.

So is it actually possible to communicate risk effectively? I’ll talk about that in the next post…

Say something controversial.

Matt