Understanding the Poll

Guidance for risk communicators

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All over the world there are people working to help their communities understand and respond to risks – from radio presenters in farming communities affected by floods to restaurant owners protecting city economies from Covid-19.

Sense about Science and Lloyd’s Register Foundation are working with many of them to understand their needs. We sought their help to create this guidance for understanding the World Risk Poll.

I. About the World Risk Poll

Who was asked? The sample

In most of the 121 countries and territories where the 2021 World Risk Poll was conducted, researchers spoke to a sample of around 1,000 people aged 15 or above through telephone or face-to-face interviews. They spoke to larger samples in China, Russia, and India, which have large populations.

The samples were nationally representative; they closely match certain characteristics of the entire nation’s adults, such as the number of people in each age group. This means the sample’s responses to questions about risks and perceptions are likely to be similar to the way everyone would answer them.

Representativeness makes it possible to compare countries and groups. A sample of 1,000 per country includes enough people of middle-income level, for example, to be confident their views are representative and can be compared with the same group in another country. But only some comparisons are possible.

In some cases, the World Risk Poll targeted questions to the relevant populations. For example, questions about safety at work were only asked to employed people. This is to avoid misleading results from people answering questions about experiences they have not had.

Demographics

We can group people in many ways—for example, by their age, their sex, how much education they’ve received or how much money they make. These different factors are used to understand how certain populations act, which helps create targeted action; the finding that men, especially young men, suffer more than women from physical injuries at work can lead to more efforts to ensure young men enrol in safety training.

II. Using the World Risk Poll results to think about risk in different communities

Risk is complicated. As the World Risk Poll shows, risk can be viewed both positively and negatively, depending on culture and language. The Poll explores perceptions. People’s perceptions of risk are subjective and influenced by lots of factors, but that doesn’t mean they are not useful. In fact, perceptions can tell us a lot: by comparing risk perception with experience of risks, we can understand the gaps between these measures, and investigate the reasons behind them.

These measures and gaps between them can also be mapped over time, which means that even if we don’t understand all the factors behind perceptions, we can see how they’re changing. The World Risk Poll is a ten-year project, so it will show some of these trends. The next set of interviews will be conducted in 2023.

If you engage with people in your community about risk, you will be very aware that values, culture, and context affect how risks are perceived and communicated. The global commentary on risk can feel distant. The World Risk Poll’s focus on perceptions and experiences makes international discussions about risk easier to relate to.

Often in both perception and experience of risks, people are not dealing with a risk in isolation, they are trading-off risks and considering the costs of tackling the risk, as well as long and short-term effects, plus the particular impact of the consequences for them.  

Risk trade-offs

We all weigh risks up against each other. Eliminating one risk usually means being exposed to a different one. Going to work exposes people to threats to safety in the workplace, but people trade these against the risks and consequences of unemployment.

The fishermen in our community in Bangladesh will go out sea fishing even with a cyclone or a storm approaching, because the risk of not catching fish and not being able to eat feels more present.

Dr Sazedul Hoque, Bangladesh

People are capable of complex and nuanced risk calculations on many topics. But we often also have blind spots where we overestimate or underestimate the risks or the benefits. As a chef, I see this with people choosing to cut out food groups, overestimating the benefit this might have and underestimating the risks it could pose to their health.

Anthony Warner, UK

Short- vs long-term risks

The subjects covered in the World Risk Poll range from immediate to long-term threats. People’s perception of them is likely to reflect things like whether they live day to day or plan for the future and not just whether they receive information or have experience of them.

We have found that it can be hard even for our local policy-makers to understand the risks and communicate why issues, such as addressing the risks that rising sea levels pose, matter now rather than leaving it for the future. Especially when there are so many immediate needs.

Dr Sazedul Hoque, Associate Professor at Patuakhali Science and Technology University, Bangladesh

Frequency

Perception of risk may similarly be influenced by how often people think something will happen. While statistics might show that a bad storm will happen on average once every 20 years, this might occur as two close together and nothing for 39 years, making it outside of lived experience for many people. This is important for understanding that people might feel safe even when they are not safe, and conversely that a relatively rare hazard might still mean some people’s actual experience is of great losses or harms coming close together.

Weighting risks

Perception of risk may similarly be influenced by how often people think something will happen. While statistics might show that a bad storm will happen on average once every 20 years, this might occur as two close together and nothing for 39 years, making it outside of lived experience for many people. This is important for understanding that people might feel safe even when they are not safe, and conversely that a relatively rare hazard might still mean some people’s actual experience is of great losses or harms coming close together.

Even in our region of southeast USA, different farmers experience risks differently. It matters whether they own the land or rent it, what crops they are planting, the geography of where they are and even their values. For some what matters is to make the most yield out of that year’s crop, for others the biggest fear is losing their land.

Pam Knox, agricultural climatologist, USA

People’s worries about risk reflect not just their understanding and experience, but also their priorities and which behaviours they’re willing or able to change – such as what crops to plant or how to build a house. Those who work to engage communities in conversations about risk therefore often focus on the benefits of specific actions and pay a lot of attention to what makes people feel safer and the experiences that they are drawing on. The World Risk Poll provides a systematic picture of these perceptions and experiences and in doing so makes it possible, for the first time, to consider how other communities manage similar conversations and act to make themselves safer. 

In our community the rainfall patterns have changed so we need to plant different crops that grow quicker and adapt to these new conditions.

Bernard Okebe, Community Empowerment and Media Initiative in Kisumu, Kenya

When we arrived in Fukushima, six months after the nuclear accident the people there told us they had had plenty of scientific lectures on radiation and associated risks but they still didn’t know whether they could drink the tap water or eat the fish from the market.

Dr Mariko Nishizawa, Associate Member of the Science Council of Japan

When we shame people as a way to try to get them to avoid risky behaviors, it doesn’t generally make the behaviors stop — it just makes people want to hide the behaviors. Rather than shaming, what we can do is try to meet people where they are and engage with empathy.

Dr Julia Marcus, infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, USA

Making informed decisions with Risk Know-How

Every day, thousands of people all over the world are helping their communities to navigate risk information, assessing benefits and trade-offs within their own context. The Risk Know-How framework has been developed, through discussions and interactions with community risk practitioners and risk experts, to facilitate informed decision-making.

Dr-Alejandra-Albuerne
Working in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes, the communities saw the concrete buildings that had survived the earthquakes as the buildings they would feel safe living in, but as an engineer my perception of the risk was very different. In a different earthquake many of those would not have been safe either. The buildings we designed had to be structurally sound and also make the community feel safe in them, as they were the ones that had to live in the buildings. Dr Alejandra Albuerne, UK