Evolving Theoretical Framework in Risk Communication

Subject: Risk Management
Pages: 17
Words: 4719
Reading time:
18 min
Study level: PhD

The main focus of this paper is the theoretical framework in risk communication. Despite being quite a recent concept, risk communication permeates entire human history. Risk is a natural phenomenon, and people always had to deal with it in the past, use the latest technological advances to handle it in the present, and develop effective strategies in order to minimize or even completely eliminate it in the future. Due to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the demand for the scientific approach to risk management increased several times. Therefore, the first attempts to describe potential hazards and methods to avoid them happened at that time. However, until the late 20th century, the number of works devoted to the topic of risk communication was scarce. Nowadays, with the active process of globalization and the rapid development of information technologies, the sphere of risk management is prospering as never before.

The theoretical approaches to the concept of risk communication are vividly expressed in numerous studies. These studies cover different aspects of the problem. For instance, the firsts focus on the psychological aspect of risk perception, the seconds deal with the objectivity of risk assessment, the thirds describe various organizations that are responsible for managing risks, the fourths analyze different types of risks, the fifths explore the history of risk regulation, the others concern themselves with the prediction of future problems in the sphere of risk management, and so on. However, all these works begin their discussion by giving a definition to the notion of risk and its assessment.

The evolution of the theoretical framework in risk communication can be traced from the first attempts to describe and analyze the risk that occurred in the 18th century. In the 20th and 21st centuries, it can be characterized by an extremely fast development due to the necessity of predicting dangerous events. Although there is an abundance of works on risk management that are being released today, there are still many important features that they miss which should be taken into consideration. In the course of time, they will probably manage to consider all the aspects of such multi-dimensional phenomenon as risk, especially when the current tendencies in the substantiation of the strategies to manage it are considered positive. Thus, the above-mentioned information leads to the following research question: “How has the theoretical framework on risk communication evolved?”

The paper consists of four main sections, namely, the introduction, the description of risk assessment, the discussion, and the conclusion. In turn, the section about the description of risk assessment is divided into five sub-sections, namely, the history of risk communication, the principles of risk management, risk perception, the current problems of risk communication theory, and the future considerations.

History of Risk Communication

In fact, the concept of risk communication exists along with the entire history of humanity. In ancient times, people already knew about the potential threats and invented various methods to protect themselves. Thus, the leaders of primeval societies always tried to determine any dangers that could harm their states and developed plans on how to deal with them (Plough & Krimsky, 1987). Among these dangers were those that occurred either inside their states or those menacing from the outside.

However, prior to the end of the 18th century, there were no scientific approaches to risk communication that would systematize all the data on managing risks gathered during the millennia of human history. In the 18th century, a number of crucial historical events occurred, which laid the foundation for the current understanding of the notion of risk management. The most important occurrence, in this respect, was the establishment of the modern state that presupposed the government to have responsibility for the social welfare of their countries (Plough & Krimsky, 1987). Although there had been no risk communication studies yet, its main principles that are widely used today were already introduced.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the active development of public medical institutions set a new milestone in the process of risk professionalization. As a result of medicine rising up to a higher level, the definition of health risks and the strategies of intervention were introduced (Chakraborty, 2010). Public health facilities began controlling the environmental risks related to the spheres of food safety and sanitation. The messages about health threats were communicated to the public through the mass media. Thus, such hazards as polluted water, toxins in food, unpasteurized milk, and so on, were confirmed by the scientists (Böl, 2015). Additionally, the experts were allowed to use any contemporary technology to minimize risks of various diseases for the population.

The next step in the development of the separate branch of expert-level risk assessment occurred during World War II. At that time, the need for scientific methods in the process of making decisions concerning potential hazards of various characters stimulated the reinforcement of federal research support which, in its turn, created different small fields such as systems analysis and operations research. As a result, at the end of the 1940s, a number of quantitative methodologies devoted to chance processes (primarily, in the economic and military fields) were developed (Chakraborty, 2010). In the course of time, these strategies were utilized to resolve practical issues in predicting and changing various risk factors in the sphere of medicine, environment, and public health. However, first, these methods were applied to statistics, economics, and mathematics, where they managed to prove their efficiency (Cvitanić, Possamaï, & Touzi, 2016). Later, they were extended to the areas of social and medical sciences and promoted the creation of numerous techniques for the calculation of risks.

By the end of the 1960s, these methodologies significantly improved systems science by providing a basis for complex policies in the process of decision-making regarding technological risks (Plough & Krimsky, 1987). These improvements resulted in a number of difficulties that the institutions of risk analysis had to handle. One of the problems was to create a logical connection between risk assessment and political decisions regarding the distribution, levels, and types of acceptable to population risks (Lindell, 1995). The result was worse than expected, mostly because it was rather difficult to find links between the perception of risks by people based on their experience and a scientific approach of decision-making based on the notion of probability.

In the 1980s, the area of risk analysis was concerned mostly with managing risks caused by scientific hazards including chances for accidents in laboratories, dissemination of diseases, the toxicity of chemical substances, radiation exposure, and others. However, at the end of the 1980s, a great abundance of studies on risk communication started to appear. Since that time, many analyses, and initiatives have been introduced, which are now considered the framework of risk assessment management (Wiengarten, Humphreys, Gimenez, & McIvor, 2016). Thus, the practice of risk communication has undergone many positive changes.

The Principles of Risk Management

In many spheres of human activity, it is imperative to estimate the nature and the level of severity of risks, as it can cause major disruptions in the work process. In economics, the study of risk assessment aims at the accurate prediction of such negative consequences as a financial crisis or inflation. In natural sciences, risk management is studied to evaluate the chance of spreading toxic substances, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and so on. In many other fields such as pharmaceutical law, food law, chemical law, and others, risk regulation is no less necessary. In the sphere of business, risk-related strategies are one of the most crucial aspects, as their viability fully depends on them (Barry, Sixsmith, & Infanti, 2013). Thus, risk management strategies permeate the entire human activity.

Considering the paramount importance of risk management nowadays, it is evident that the insurance industry is thriving, as it can provide proper risk regulation. Insurance premiums directly depend on the combination of the probability, the size of a particular risk, and the operational expenses of an insurance company (Bostrom, 2003). Poor risk evaluation undermines the competitive ability of the insurance company and the interests of its clients. In terms of governmental efforts in estimating risk, they are usually aimed at protecting the health and maintaining safety for the population by means of the scientific assessment (Chess, 2001). In this case, poor risk management provides the government with unreliable data, which results in improper regulation that can sometimes be life-threatening to people.

During the process of assessing risk, many different concepts of uncertainty can be implemented. These concepts can regard risk as “an expected disutility”, “an epistemic uncertainty”, “a probability distribution”, “an expected value”, and so on. The main common feature among all these methods is their attempt to make the notion of risk more objective (Fischhoff, 1995). The calculation of risk that can be elicited from a great number of risk management techniques can be used in taking measures to protect against risk.

Moreover, objectifying risk has many benefits that are a crucial part of operating systems in various regulatory institutions, industries, societal organizations, business enterprises, scientific fields, and so forth. Understandably, risk assessment based on objective facts is considered a high standard and is the main principle of rational decision-making (Chess, 2001). However, many scholars disagree and claim that analyzing risk objectively has several limitations. First of all, from the philosophic and methodological point of view, there are no objective facts and knowledge that do not depend on the observer. The second argument is that according to the concepts in behavioral sciences regarding human decision-making in the process of risk assessment, there is quite a big difference between perceived and objectified risks. Notably, according to the studies on risk perception, people usually express more concerns towards those risks that are objectively not very important or have mild consequences. Conversely, people can sometimes accept those risks that pose a real threat to their plans (Clarke, Evensen, Jacquet, & Stedman, 2012). A vivid example is that when people choose to travel by plane because they think that it is statistically safer than a car, they do not take into account the risk of driving the car to the airport.

Additionally, recent studies showed that the combination of the degree to which people perceive a particular hazard to be risky and the degree of feeling uncertainty towards a certain risk prognosticated the extent to which the public advocated for regulatory actions regarding this hazard. In fact, this demand for taking measures against a particular risk is often driven by the pure perception of this risk rather than by its scientific analysis (Renn, 1998). Thus, analyzing risk proved to be necessary for determining objective factors of the risk, which provide information to risk regulation and management, policy development, and decision-making. In addition, the perception of risk demonstrates how people psychologically interact with those risks that are the closest to them (Leiss, 1996). In general, all the approaches have their benefits; therefore, it is senseless to try to determine the better one, as they both influence decision-making and are able to promote or linger risk communication.

Due to the fact that in implementing practical regulatory actions it is impossible to know in advance which risk communication method will be most impactful, it is imperative to admit that both of them can contribute to the process of the development of risk objects including “a risky hedge fund” or “a dangerous gene” (Renn, 1998). Thus, since risk objects can sometimes be the combination of subjective and objective risk evaluations, they can be called “risk hybrids”.

Risk Perception

From the psychological point of view, there are three ways in which the subjective assessment of risks concerning their magnitude and nature can be expressed. The first way is personal preferences for chances of a particular risk to occur and the attempts to give an explanation to the phenomenon when people do not tend to base their judgments on expected values (Leiss, 1996). Interestingly, the results of this research showed a consistent pattern that people are usually reluctant to take risks if the losses in case of failure are very high and, on the contrary, they are willing to risk if the benefits from their actions in case of success are very high. The second way lies in the fact that according to many studies on the assessment of probabilities in making decisions, several biases were identified. Among them is people’s inclination to draw conclusions from the information on the probability. In this respect, firstly, events about which people think are perceived by them as more probable than those which are not “mentally available” to them. Secondly, the chances of a particular hazard are tied to the information available to a person at the moment of hearing it. Thirdly, personal experience and events that occurred with a particular individual are regarded by that person as more probable than those risks that are objectively considered more frequent (Renn, 1998). Fourthly, the information that undermines the personal perception of probabilities will either be underestimated or completely ignored.

Therefore, risk managers should take these biases into account when making their calculations, as they form a public perception of risks and have a great impact on public opinion and, eventually, its response (Lindell, 2013). Finally, the third way of risk perception is based on psychological research that discovered different meanings of risk, the prevalence of each of them depending on the context in which they are used. Thus, there are certain semantic changes in the notion of risk that change people’s perception of it (Poortvliet, Duineveld, & Purnhagen, 2016). For example, in technical sciences, the risk is understood as the probability of a certain event reinforced by the size of this event, whereas in people’s everyday lives, the concept of risk has absolutely different connotations.

In this respect, researchers distinguish four types of public perception of risks. The first type is called “risk as a pending danger” or “Damocles sword”. In this type of perception, the risk is regarded as a threat that can cause pernicious effects without a proper warning and with no sufficient time to deal with the disaster (Fortun, 2004). This perception is connected with a large catastrophic image of the event caused by a hazard. In this case, the magnitude of the chance is not taken into consideration, as it is the random character of this perception that evokes dread. In contrast to this, natural disasters are viewed as rather predictable due to the regularity of their occurrence (Kasperson, 2014). Therefore, this perception of a pending danger prevails in the image of large-scale technologies. A vivid example of this semantic group is nuclear power plants.

The second type of public perception of risks is called “slow killers” or “Pandora’s Box”. In this type of perception, the risk is interpreted as an invisible menace to people’s well-being and health (Fischhoff, 1995). This kind of perception develops slowly and influences a small number of people at the same time. Information about these risks is usually provided by others rather than being based on a personal experience. Such risks are in great demand for reliableness in those organizations that are responsible for providing information on how to manage hazards. If trust is undermined, people demand immediate measures and accuse these organizations of negligence even if the hazards are small. An illustrative example of this category is biological substances like pesticides, radioactive materials, food additives, and so on (Cvitanić et al., 2016). Because of the significance of trust in observing and controlling slow killers, it is essential for risk managers to make large efforts to improve and maintain the credibility of their organizations in the community.

The third type of public perception of risks is called “cost-benefit ratio” or “Athena’s Scale”. In this kind of perception, risks are regarded as a balance between losses and gains (Gurabardhi, Gutteling, & Kuttschreuter, 2004). Although this concept of risk is closely connected with the technical understanding of hazards, in people’s minds, it concerns only the monetary aspect of their lives and that of their other material values. A typical example of this semantic category is gambling and betting which require certain probabilistic thinking. Thus, people can only utilize this probabilistic thinking only in the spheres of financial investments, insurance policies, lotteries, and gambling (Lindell, 1995). According to the psychological experiments, people base their judgment about the chances of a successful investment or winning a lottery primarily on the variance of failure and success rather than on the expected value.

The fourth type of public perception of risks is called “a vocational thrill” or “Hercules’ theme”. In this respect, risks are investigated and desired. Such risks consist of various leisure activities that require personal skills to deal with dangerous situations (Kasperson, 2014). Thus, people experience a great delight in having full control over the dangerous situation. Therefore, these risks are almost always deliberate and involve personal control over the magnitude of a hazard.

Thus, the provided list of risk concepts shows that the perception of risk is a multi-sided concept that cannot be limited by the notions of probability and consequences. Furthermore, the perception of risk is different in different cultural and social groups (Renn, 1998). However, one common feature unites all the countries and cultures where the studies on risk perception were conducted, namely, the overwhelming majority of people understand risk as a multi-sided phenomenon and adjust their beliefs according to the nature of the hazard, its causes, its consequences, and the circumstances of its occurrence.

The Current Problems of Risk Communication Theory

Considering the amount of literature on risk communication that has been released for the last twenty years, it seems impossible to assume that there are still many problems in this field that remain unsolved. The works on risk communication are abundant with instances of missed opportunities, major failures, and different missteps (Aven, 2016). However, almost all these works do not provide any information on what lessons people can learn from these failures.

One of the most vivid examples of risk communication failures is a more than the fifty-year-old effort of the US government and scientists to reduce and even eliminate the problem of tobacco use and smoking. For this period, a large number of researchers have released thousands of articles devoted to the topic of risks associated with smoking (Adams & Smith, 2001). However, their attempts to illustrate major risks of smoking that can lead to such diseases as lung cancer turned out to be futile. Moreover, although such institutions as the American Cancer Society, the American Medication Association, the US Public Health Service, and others made large efforts to sustain scientific evidence, to enhance the reality of risks, to disillusion all the possible benefits from smoking, to promote risk education, and to release admonitions about the dangerous effects of nicotine, the percentage of smokers is still rather high (Kasperson, 2014). Certainly, the tobacco industry expresses a different point of view, as luring more clients like in any other business is beneficial for them. Nevertheless, according to the survey, the number of people who smoke has reduced from almost 50% in 1965 to slightly less than 20% in 2012 (Renn, 1998).

Another example is nuclear waste disposal, which has been on the US government’s agenda for more than forty years now. Risk managers made many warnings to the nuclear industry, federal agencies, and Congress about the importance of choosing and developing a proper site for radioactive waste (Leiss, 1996). These communication challenges include many important issues that are not usually considered in decision-making as the qualitative dimensions of the hazard, fairness of methods, equity issues, value problems related to civil rights and liberties, and governmental concerns (Sandman, 1988). Notwithstanding a large number of studies and thorough discussions on that matter, decision-makers had aggravated the situation with equity issues by removing the second repository and choosing an appropriate site for nuclear waste before the scientific analysis of this site was completed.

In fact, it is quite usual for both the private and the public sector to show their support for risk communication when the long process of risk assessment is finally completed. The anti-smoking campaign has become quite successful mostly because of the collaborative efforts of the government and scientists to convey a large amount of information concerning the pernicious influence of tobacco on human health, which lasted for decades (Wiengarten et al., 2016). Thus, effective risk communication directly depends on persistence, namely, the continuous process of conveying certain information. Another crucial aspect of successful risk management is the scope of its communication, which must be comprehensive and wide enough to cover all the problems that concern the decision-makers. In this respect, the anti-tobacco campaign was successful because risk managers not only stated that smoking could cause lung cancer but also that it was a dirty habit that made look people less attractive, especially women (Aven, 2016). The reason for the failure of nuclear waste disposal was that the debate on that matter did not include equity issues and did not consider civil liberties.

Another aspect that is poorly discussed in the studies about risk communication in the ways of effective communication of potential hazards to the public and decision-makers. Communicating uncertainty is an integral part of risk assessment (Poortvliet et al., 2016). However, the main problem is that nobody likes uncertainty, as it postpones any process or action for an indefinite period of time. That is why some people in certain situations simply ignore them. For example, when launching a space shuttle, NASA engineers face a series of uncertainties, some of which they have to ignore. Despite the numerous researches on determining uncertainty, the results are not quite positive. Even risk experts sometimes confound various sources of uncertainty that appear due to inadequate information, wrong understanding of a certain phenomenon, different kinds of limitations, and so forth (Clarke et al., 2012). As a result, due to this confusion in the accuracy of the provided data, risk managers have to spend much more time to reduce the element of uncertainty.

Thus, what can be learned from this experience of dealing with uncertainty is that, first of all, it is obvious that neither decision-makers nor the public need a complete list of all the possible uncertainties that scientists can provide. Secondly, uncertainties put in value systems of those who bear the risks are to be brought to the foreground and be included in the process of risk assessment and management (Fortun, 2004). Otherwise, some uncertainties will remain unnoticed and quietly disrupt decision-making.

One more important problem that has to be dwelt upon is the collapse of social trust that has a great impact on the ways of risk management. Currently, in many countries, a long process of social trust erosion occurs. The main reason why the social trust in scientists and decision-makers is undermined is that nowadays, there is a large amount of information distributed in mass media, especially the Internet, that is false (Kasperson, 2014). Therefore, since one of the most important functions of risk communicators is to provide trustworthy and reliable information about certain technologies or particular projects, people’s confidence in these sources is vital.

However, despite most studies providing allegedly effective strategies of how to win social trust, they simply do not work, as, in fact, trust cannot be easily regained. Unfortunately, there are no effective methods of winning people’s confidence quickly; however, there is a way that is based on the assumption that people think of a certain risk from a different perspective (Barry et al., 2013). Particularly, they can decide that they will not follow the common opinion and put their trust in scientists and decision-makers.

Finally, the last question concerns itself with a set of principles that can provide effective risk communication (Barry et al., 2013). Considering the elements mentioned above, which the literature on risk communication lacks, it is important to highlight certain principles that can considerably improve the area of risk communication and fill in certain gaps in the studies on that matter.

The first principle is that the programs on risk communication should be always sustained and better funded, and risk communicators should develop ambitious plans as to their improvement. The second principle claims that risk communication needs to be broadened in order to internalize the main problems of concern, and risk communicators should make their analyses of hazards deeper in order to influence the integrating risk problems in lifestyle and value structures. The third principle states that if there are many significant uncertainties, better communication is required to deal with them, particularly, the reduction of the number of uncertainties leaving only those that are of paramount importance. Lastly, the fourth principle emphasizes that if the level of social distrust is high, certain reconsiderations of the goals, conduct, and structure of risk communication are needed (Gurabardhi et al., 2004). Thus, taking into account the abovementioned principles can significantly improve risk communication.

Future Considerations

Currently, the risk communication sphere is rapidly developing, and it is evident that it will grow further. Understandably, society is not merely concerned with the reduction of risks but with their complete elimination. However, from the philosophical point of view, it is not possible at all, as safety is an illusion and there will always be ways to disrupt it. Indeed, it seems that it is impossible to be insured from everything (Barry et al., 2013). However, from the scientific point of view, theoretically, in many areas, it is possible to reduce risks to the very minimum.

Interestingly, people are willing to experience suffering if they believe that it is justified, and, at the same time, they can reject even the smallest chance of being harmed if they think that risk violates their values and beliefs (Aven, 2016). Thus, risk management should take into account these factors in the future, as they can also improve this sphere.

Additionally, risk management presupposes value judgments that are divided into three aspects. The first aspect refers to the set of criteria which determines how tolerability and acceptability must be judged. The second aspect focuses on the compromises between the criteria. Finally, the third aspect provides help in developing the best strategies for dealing with other uncertainties (Aven, 2016). The implementation of all three aspects will undoubtedly enhance the validity of the available technical expertise for determining and calculating the performance of each criterion. Setting priorities in evaluating hazards will certainly imply having political and social forces define the criteria of risk analysis, whereby the scientific assessments are regarded as an indispensable part in the process of comparing different options (Barry et al., 2013). Hence, public opinion is also a crucial aspect of determining the goals of risk policies and selecting between different options.


The development of the theoretical framework in risk communication started in the 18th century. The phase of its active development began in the 20th century. The main cause of this acceleration is the creation of information technologies and globalization that shaped the world in a way that significantly enhances the demand for effective risk communication. Therefore, the number of studies on that matter increases exponentially.

Although there are currently many studies that describe different techniques for successful risk communication, they lack certain details. These details include psychological aspects of risk perception, the information that can be elicited from failures and successes in risk assessment, the means of effective communication of uncertainties to the public and decision-makers, the methods to prevent the erosion of social trust in managing risks, and the development of principles of maintaining a strong connection between decision-makers, scientists, and the public.

As for the future implications, the area of risk management will continue to develop further until it can completely eliminate the probability of certain risks and minimize the chance of occurrence of the others. Modern tendencies regarding risk communication and the literature devoted to this topic definitely show great promise in dealing with this issue in the future.


Currently, the sphere of risk communication is rapidly expanding. Risk managers try to embrace all aspects associated with risk communication. In general, the existing studies provide quite a comprehensive analysis of risk assessment. Certainly, they miss some details on that matter, as the concept of risk is multi-dimensional, and it is impossible for such a short period of time of the active development of literature focused on evaluating hazards to develop a holistic approach to this issue.


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