I felt like an extra in Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy World yesterday morning.
Filling up with gas at the local garage I shared the forecourt with a huge red fire truck packed with firemen. Given the cell phone risk signs posted all around I was disconcerted to see one of the crew leap down from the truck and start texting in the pump bay.
Lowly Worm insight: The public’s perceived risk of taking or making any calls in a gas station forecourt is less than the actual risk.
Leaving the gas station I went to our local GP to pick up a script for one of the kids living off the corridor, only to be greeted by a laminated notice and a closed door. To paraphrase - “Before you open door pause and consider whether you are feeling dodgy in a way that could be ‘flu like – if this is possible remain outside and Tom Jones like “knock three times” at a window to alert us inside of your possible H1N1 incubating self outside.”
Lowly Worm insight: The actual risk of catching something serious in GP’s waiting room is high enough to abandon those too enfeebled to knock three times and those too short to reach the window but not so high as to exclude those without the literacy and or the language to make meaning from the text. [that is the 380,000 New Zealanders without the literacy to understand the instructions on a fire extinguisher and anyone else without the ability to make meaning from English]
I then visited a friend who had a Richard Scarry “Great Pie Robbery” experience on Wednesday, where all her electrical goods stolen. The home and contents insurance was up to date, the burglary happened when she was out, the forced windows and doors were quickly repaired and the police visited and detectives Sam and Dudley dusted for fingerprints. But she feels vulnerable in a place that the week before had been her refuge.
Lowly Worm insight: The actual risk is not important – the perceived risk of Horace Wolf and Croaky Crocodile revisiting the house creates high levels of anxiety and outrage.
To understand how we use risk management and risk communication, [or how it uses us] I reckon you cannot better reading Max Brook’s World War Z but reading Peter Sandman Talking about “Risk Communication Before and During Epidemics” provides a framework that has helped me analyse our response to “swine ‘flu”, national testing and all the other stuff that frightens us.
For example, I didn’t know that “how much harm a risk does” and “how upset people get” has a correlation coefficient of only 0.2.
That is, the risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different. If you know that a risk kills people, you have no idea whether it upsets them or not. If you know it upsets them, you have no idea whether it kills them or not.
Sandman frames these two as “hazard” and “outrage” and goes on to show that
He elaborates on this research to show that “the correlation between hazard and perceived hazard is also very low, but the correlation between outrage and perceived hazard is very high.”
This analysis interests me as I try to understand the high levels of outrage at the Minister Anne Tolley’s suggested introduction of National Standards – outrage that is based on the “perceived risk” of league tables.
Sandman is smart ... he knows that correlation is not necessarily causality ... but that when it is ... then the directionality is contestable.
That's an important question, because if you want to manage the system, you have to know which one is the cause and which one is the effect. You don't want to be in the awkward position of trying to manage a cause by manipulating the effect. That's not likely to work. So you need to know the direction of the causality. This is much studied, and as usual in social science, it turns out to be a cycle, but one of the arrows is very robust and the other arrow is very weak. The strong arrow is from outrage to hazard perception. That is, for the most part, it is not true that people are upset because they think [a risk is] dangerous; it's much more true that people think [a risk is] dangerous because they're upset.
And I love the way he explains the negative
If the outrage is the driver ... and the hazard perception is the result the message to Anne Tolley is quite clear – introduce communication strategies to reduce the outrage. The message to the NZEI is equally clear – introduce communication strategies that increase the outrage.
However, it was the second part of Sandman’s analysis that I most enjoyed reading.
Here he talks about how risk management is also used by those with institutional authority to shelter the public from high risk information on the grounds that the ensuing panic will be more damaging than the risk itself.
All those “damage control”, “on a need to know basis” conversations that obscure transparency within institutions
The Argument: If we scare people this fear will escalate into panic. Panic will exacerbate the situation.
However Sandman counters by arguing that our experience in New Orleans and 9/11show that we overrate panic. He distinguishes “feeling panicky” from “acting panicky” and he introduces a new idea – that of “panic panic”
And this is a problem because in risky situations fear is tolerated, has an “adjustment reaction” which because it is a rehearsal has positive outcomes in terms of appropriate future reaction ...
- The underestimation of the frequency with which fearful people rise to resilient, pro-social, and even heroic behavior. We had ample evidence of that in 9/11, and I won't belabor the point.
- The failure to recognize the positive value of fear in encouraging preparedness, vigilance, tolerance of inconvenience and expense, and so forth.
And it seems contrary to what we commonly hold as true - that communication that makes people fearful in risky situations is a good thing.
The bit I liked best was Sandman’s notion that fear is fungible.
Which brings me right back to thinking about – what are the things that are currently competing for a slice of the fearfulness pie in education?