Sign at the decades-long anti-nuclear protest tent on the north side of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2015

Sign at the decades-long anti-nuclear protest tent on the north side of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2015
Sign at the decades-long anti-nuclear protest tent on the north side of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2015

The power of emotion in risk communication

We’ve all felt dread. It’s that gripping worry about the worst-case scenario before the doctor calls with the diagnosis, or when the phone rings in the middle of the night.

It’s that same fear that stirs up emotion in British Columbians when a resource company proposes a new development such as a mine or pipeline. The opposition is usually based on a feeling of concern citizens have about the impact the project could have on their way of life, a mistrust of the companies behind it and skepticism around government regulators charged with overseeing it.

The dread is despite a steady stream of facts and expensive PR campaigns from proponents claiming their projects are built to minimize risk. Opponents don’t accept the proponents’ facts but are instead driven by what University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic calls the “dread factor”—the prime predictor of a strong reaction to risk.

According to Slovic, perceptions of risk reside in us mostly as “gut feelings” rather than the outcome of analytic calculations. The most powerful of these feelings is dread, linked with a sense of having no control in a situation, inequality (where others get the benefit while they get saddled with the risk) and how catastrophic a risk is seen to be. His research shows that reliance on feelings as our guide to risk causes us, when we see risk as high, to also believe the benefit is low. The opposite is true if we come to believe the benefit is high—then we tend to see the risk as low.

This perhaps accounts for some of the highly emotional, often fact-free debates we see from resource project proponents and opponents who are hard-selling the benefits and risks. Misunderstanding the “dread factor” and the possibly legitimate concerns that fuel it intensifies the problem of unyielding one-sidedness that we see in so many public disputes.

It’s difficult to be authentic in your argument if you don’t understand what Slovic calls the “whisper of emotion.” This is the emotional meaning: the good or bad feelings and gut instinct that helps people make decisions. Sure, these feelings may sometimes be misguided, but they are also a sophisticated compass that guides us through life in a highly efficient and usually accurate way.

The power of emotion is a critical consideration in risk communication. No matter how good you think your argument is in a time of crisis, regardless of how provable your facts, if the public feels its liberty or right to fair treatment or livelihood is in danger, you’re losing the battle to dread.

Consider the case of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the Las Vegas area, which has been a centre of controversy for more than three decades. Despite a multibillion-dollar scientific effort that concluded Yucca Mountain was a safe and feasible waste site, the public felt its concerns and values were not given a fair hearing and the risk assessment carried little weight.

It’s another example of how the “I’m right, you’re wrong, let me tell you what you should think” attitude doesn’t work because, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, we all think we are right.

The emotional dialogue that takes place around risk issues is often unconscious as we focus on debates over facts. But we need to be conscious of this emotional dialogue and surface it. 

This is where most risk communication fails. It needs to be a two-way process where both sides have something worthwhile to contribute. Facts and evidence are more believable when we acknowledge both sides of a story. If you remember you could be wrong, people will be more likely to trust you and be more receptive. It’s about communicating trust, by being trust worthy.

James Hoggan is a public relations consultant. His latest book, I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, will be published in May. Follow James Hoggan on Twitter