A decision of whether or not to take a risk is
influenced by many factors such as previous experiences, values, beliefs, the
environment and the society one grew up in. (Adams, 2003).
Studies of Risk Perception test people’s characteristics whilst they are asked
to evaluate a hazard in a certain situation. (Slovic, 1987).
According to Adams, 2003 there are 3 framing devices
for risk perception which are –
Kinds of Risk – It is a classification of uncertainty which relates to beliefs,
principles and ethics of an individual. This is further divided into directly
perceptible risk, risk perceived through science and virtual risk.
The ability to deal with Directly
Perceptible Risks have come to man with evolution. Directly Perceptible Risks
are managed involuntarily. For example, we automatically close our eyes if we
see something coming towards us. One
does not undertake a risk assessment before dealing with such risks.
Environmental and surroundings monitoring for signs of safety and danger helps
individuals manage such risks on their own.
The risks perceived through science
cannot be managed at an individual level because the causes and effects are not
known hence it becomes difficult to manage such risks at an individual level.
Virtual risks are risks which may or may not be real. If a significant number
of people believe in them, they could have consequences which are real.
Thermostat – This measures risk in the barriers, benefits and outcomes. The
Balancing Act model states that all individuals are likely to take risks, every
individual measures the outcomes, benefits and consequences of their actions
and then takes risks. For example, if one has to board a train, the time he /
she will leave from home will depend on how important work is and how will he /
she benefit out of it.
of Ethical Filters – The individual has his / her own way of managing risks.
There is nothing like a society or conscience he / she is bound by.
(Eaves D, 2008)
The grid represents the extent to which social context
limits or regulates the conduct of an individual towards nature. This grid
consists of the Hierarchist, the Individualist, the Egalitarian and the
Fatalist as the main characters.
The Individualist have very firm views about nature. They feel nature resembles
nature as strong, but harmless. They feel nature is at its original state even
with changes in the surroundings.
The Hierarchist views nature as trustworthy but feels that nature has its own
limits to which it can be trusted.
The Egalitarian views nature as fragile and feels threatened if one goes
against nature or its limits.
The Fatalist thinks that nature is extremely unpredictable and untrustworthy.
When a person has limited behavioural options,
individuals are likely to act more freely and negotiate their personal and
social reactions. When changes in the interactions between groups and grids
take place, the individual’s social participation is affected. Different modes
of social interaction are described by the above grid group analysis. (Sigve,
et. al., 2004).
Data on Risk Perception is collected because it is
believed that risk perception influences and is important to policy makers.
Risk and Risk Mitigation are directly proportional to each other. However true
it might be, many studies have shown that more than the perception bit, it is
the consequences of that hazard which influences the individual’s feeling of
risk mitigation. (Sjöberg, 2003).
This essay will critically evaluate 3 theories namely,
the Cultural Heuristic Theory, the Psychometric Paradigm and the Cultural
Heuristic Theory –
Psychologists in the 20th century found there is a
rational process for decision making which involves logic, reasoning and
thought of all the probabilities of risk involved in a decision. However, it is
a time-consuming process if applied to every decision. It was found that an
individual uses ‘heuristic’ or a ‘mental short cut’ to solve a problem by
making a decision based on previous experiences. This theory is known as
‘Cognitive Heuristic Theory’. Every person has different attitudes towards
perceiving risk depending on cultures, values, beliefs, attitudes and past
experiences. (Walls et. al, 2010)
Applying this theory to floods, someone who has lost
his / her family member or home previously due to floods, will evacuate
immediately as soon as they sense the area will be flooded due to heavy rain
and will take all the necessary precautions to secure the home and family.
Whereas, a person who has never been exposed to floods before, will not be able
to act quickly. This is because the logic and reasoning power of the individual
will be at stake because he / she will have to follow multiple instructions and
multi – task which was never done before.
People perceive that a low socioeconomic class is the
main population affected maximum by floods. Families who are dependent on
agriculture for their livelihood, will find it difficult to leave their farms,
cattle and homes and migrate to a new place as they have been living in that
place for many years and it is against their values and beliefs to leave the
cattle and land on which their livelihood depends. Also, it is not affordable
to buy new land, cattle and settle elsewhere and start anew. (Walls et. al,
A literature review was performed in November 2013
whose main focus was empirical studies which described social vulnerability
process and outcomes during floods. It was found that elderly people, pregnant
ladies, single parents, disabled people, etc. would be more vulnerable to
floods in certain situations. (Rufat et. al, 2010).
The psychological aspect of risk perception has
attracted many researchers, especially during the 1980’s when the importance of
values and beliefs of an individual emerged. The most useful theory for
psychological research is the psychometric paradigm since then. However, few
conclusions are not well researched and are not based on empirical data and
proper analysis is not done. In a study conducted by Fischhoff et al., people
were asked to rate risk of each activity depending on the dimensions such as
voluntariness. The means were calculated and then intercalated. It was found
that two factors namely Dread and Novelty explained variance. When a regression
was run on perceived risk, the level of explained variance was about 20%.
The basic work of the psychometric paradigm has been
replicated many times and the factor structure is undeviating and the risk
perception is well explained by the factors. This is why the psychometric
paradigm is hugely successful. The validity of the Psychometric Paradigm is
however unknown and has been taken for granted as it has been cited by many
researchers and in many books.
A study conducted was by Slovic, et.al., (1991). The
study interviewed the participants on how their trust would be affected by
various events. The study concluded that it was easy to trust. If the trust was
broken, it was very hard to re – build that trust. However true it might be, it
does not provide a concrete basis on psychological indicators, instead it just
reflects the beliefs of people regarding trust. Media has a very strong
influence on people’s risk perception. A study conducted by Wåhlberg &
Sjöberg, 2000 showed that media are irresponsible and only want to broadcast
negative information targeting high consequence risk. (Sjöberg,
In spite of all the positives there are faults with
the psychometric paradigm. The data, if analysed properly only accounts for 20%
– 25% of the variance for perceived risk and tolerance. Misleading data and
analysis has been used which is why the theory has a high explanatory power.
Trust is a weak explanatory variable in regards of risk perception. The above
mentioned statement is supported by results which is suggestive that
measurement of trust should be specific and not generalized. (Sjöberg, 2003).
Social and Cultural perspectives which influenced risk
became important in the 1980’s. According to Douglas and Wildavsky (1982),
started to conduct a study on perception of risks of individuals depending on
their cultural beliefs and values. They thought that the environment and social
settings play a major role in the decision of taking risks of an individual.
They also highlighted that the society and the society’s values and beliefs,
plays an important role in the development of perceptions of an individual. The
social cognition patterns work as filters in an individual’s mind and
influences the decision of whether or not a particular risk is supposed to be
taken or not. (Marris, 1998).
According to the social cognition perspective, one does not decide what he /
she fears or doesn’t fear based on individual cognition but it is highly
influenced by the society’s views and beliefs. This is how every individual
develops world – views.
An international study conducted by Wildavsky in 1993
showed that there is a negligible link between knowledge and risk perception of
an individual. The cultural theory states that the individuals choose what they
fear depending on the cultures they are born and brought up in. The grid –
group typology (mentioned above) divides all individuals in 4 groups, namely,
the Individualist, the Egalitarian, the Hierarchist and the Fatalist and helps
studies the attitudes and behaviours of individuals in those groups. (Marris, 1998).
The Cultural Theory clearly hypothesizes the modes of
risk perception. People which are classified as the Hierarchist, are willing to
take risks until the risks are justified by experts or government authorities.
However, they fear risks which are exposed to social order.
The Egalitarians are unwilling to take risks which are known to cause
irreversible damage to them and the future generations. They doubt the
decisions of the experts and government authorities if risks are imposed over
The Fatalists do not worry about the things they cannot do anything about. They
tend to follow mob – psychology but without knowing what is good and bad for
Every risk is a new opportunity for an Individualist. (Marris, 1998).
Literature has found an argumentative discussion on
measurement of culture with individual level data. The past literature suggests
that culture is not just a phenomenon but plays a very important role in the
risk perception process of an individual. Hence it is not possible to measure
culture with individual level data.
Hofstede (1980) or Schwartz and Ros (1995), the individuals prioritize their
values depending on their personal experiences and on cultures.
Critics have said that the cultural theory has a very
low explanatory power. (Boholm, 1996; Sjober, 1995). However, Tansey (2004)
states that the theory has been taken out of its original context and its
embedded into social theory which is misunderstood due to its depth. According
to Sigve et al (2004), the initial study by Douglas (1978) was conducted in an
environment where the society’s restrictions and rules of life put members of
the society in their place. The society has changed these days since the
initial theory was hypothesised. Therefore, the cultural theory was useful in
the past but is irrelevant now because the society has changed.
The Psychometric Paradigm would be a useful theory
since it is simple to understand. It could be better explained if the measures
for the analysis were reliable, specific and not generalized. However, this
theory is useful with risk perception research at the population level rather
than individual level.
The Cultural Theory is not useful to understand the
risk perception of modern times as the society has changed over time but the
tools used for measurement of risk are still the same.