Background and Problem Statement

Research on how risk shapes our experience of the world and the decisions we make has come a long way since it began in earnest some half a century ago, becoming more sophisticated and contextual to consider media, culture, social influences and even emotion. An impressive body of work has also now begun to offer practical tools and perspectives. Risk perception is widely acknowledged as an essential policy input. Behavioural insights have been translated into harm-reducing experiments. Some media now use ‘natural frequencies’ to explain what the raising of risk factors actually means for the individual and there is progress in better mapping and communicating risk visually, for example.

Risk is an idea about what might happen in the future – good or bad – yet – particularly in policy and initiatives around contentious issues – risk all too often figures simply as a ‘bad’ to be eliminated, often through startling – but partial – messages. There is confusion and obfuscation between directing people towards changing particular behaviours, and tools that equip people to make better decisions for themselves. Other problems persist such as the continued confusion between risk and hazard in policy-making, failure to take account of both the absolute and relative dimensions of risk and to set risks against benefits, trade-offs and unintended consequences.