Posted: February 6, 2004
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Article SummaryThis short column offers a checklist of 15 possibilities to consider when you believe people are over-reacting to a risk you consider small. The #1 possibility – mentioned but not discussed in the column – is that outrage at some aspect of the situation might be clouding their judgment. That’s the core of my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula and my approach to risk communication when hazard is low and outrage is high. But the column identifies 14 other possibilities that ought to be considered before jumping to the conclusion that people are outraged … including #15, the possibility that they might be right and you might be under-reacting to a serious hazard.

When People Are “Over-Reacting” to Risk

This is the third in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this web site. This column appears (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the February 2004 issue of The Synergist, pp. 22, 24.

For comparison, see also “When People Are ‘Under-Reacting’ To Risk.”


Roughly two decades ago I suggested dividing the concept of risk into two components. I labeled the technical side of risk (magnitude times probability) “hazard” and the rest of risk (factors like control, trust, dread, voluntariness, and responsiveness) “outrage.” People’s response to risk, I argued, is mostly a response to outrage. So when hazard is high and outrage is low, people under-react. And when hazard is low and outrage is high, they over-react.

But outrage isn’t the only possible explanation for over-reaction to a risk. Here’s a list of some others, starting with #2. Outrage about the risk – or about the way you’re handling the risk – is still #1.

The list isn’t complete. It isn’t in order of importance or frequency. And the categories aren’t air-tight. Whenever you think people are over-reacting to a risk, run through the list to help you think more clearly about why. Usually two or three explanations will apply. Only then can you start figuring out what to do about the problem.

Are they cautious?

Whatever you think of the politics of the Precautionary Principle, “better safe than sorry” is a far-from-foolish rule of thumb.

Are they ignorant?

This isn’t as common as my clients imagine, but it does happen. Maybe nobody ever taught them it’s (more or less) safe.

Are they misinformed?

Misinformed is different from ignorant, and much harder to correct. Maybe they were wrongly taught it’s terribly dangerous.

Are they irrational, even crazy?

Accusing people of irrationality backfires even when it’s true. And it’s usually not true. This is on the list because it’s a common misdiagnosis, not because it’s a common response to risk.

Pause for a moment to compare #5 to its predecessors on the list. “Irrational” means they have good data from which they nonetheless draw bad conclusions. “Misinformed” means they have bad data; there’s nothing wrong with their conclusion-drawing. “Ignorant” means they don’t have any data at all. “Cautious” means they see the data as uncertain and are therefore allowing themselves a margin of error. And in this context outrage means they are responding to a different data set altogether, data about control, trust, dread, and the rest.

Are they intuitive?

This is a bit harder to define than the first five, but it’s important. They’re relying on “data” they can’t quite put their finger on. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong.

Are they emotional?

They’re setting aside the data (in part) and allowing emotions to affect the decision (too). This isn’t necessarily irrational; it makes use of capacities other than the rational. Psychiatrists have a name for people who have no emotions, or no access to their emotions. They’re called psychopaths.

Are they value-centric?

They’re setting aside the data (in part) and allowing values and ideology to affect the decision (too). Many risks, from abortion to genetically modified foods, raise values issues right along with the risk issues. Psychiatrists have a name for people who have no values, too. They’re called sociopaths.

Are they going through an adjustment reaction?

The healthy response to a new risk is to pause, take stock, become anxious and vigilant, personalize the risk, and “rehearse” emotionally and logistically. In other words, it’s healthy to “over-react” for a while. Then the New Normal sets in.

Are they selfish or greedy?

Even a tiny risk may be unacceptable if the risk-taker gets none of the benefits. Refusing to live near a hazardous waste facility or avoiding Chinese restaurants during a SARS scare may be rationally selfish reactions to small hazards. Wanting compensation for enduring the risk is rationally greedy.

Do they have a hidden agenda?

This is a special case of selfishness/greed. Maybe they want to get elected or get into the newspapers or get your company to pay them to go away.

Are they coping with injured self-esteem?

Guilt, shame, and other forms of ego injury underlie many over-reactions to risk. Think about the environmental justice movement, for example, as a response to what oppression does to self-esteem. This is on top of the baseline hazards oppressed people face, and the outrage of oppression itself.

Are they getting even?

Revenge is outrage displaced in time. They’re outraged at you (or your company), but not for this particular risk; they’re outraged at you for other things you have done, or they think you’ve done. It’s payback time.

Are they outraged but not really at you?

Outrage can be displaced in space as well as in time. They may be outraged at someone else entirely – or at life in general. But you’re easier to attack. Or you’ve made yourself more attractive to attack; you’ve become a magnet for free-floating outrage.

Are they right?

Last but not least: It’s always possible you’re under-reacting … especially if your employer has a lot at stake. Think of an example of a risk you judge to be serious that vested interests refuse to take seriously. Now consider the possibility that the risk you’re assuming people are over-reacting to is another example.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman

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