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A socio-psychological model for analyzing
risk communication processes

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2000-2

A socio-psychological model for analyzing
risk communication processes

A/Prof B. Rohrmann, Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia. Phone: +61 3 93446349 Fax: 93476618, Email: b.rohrmann@psych.unimelb.edu.au
Keywords: risk information, risk communication, hazards, disaster preparedness

Bernd Rohrmann

Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of Melbourne,
Parkville, Victoria 3052,


In this conceptual article, a theoretical framework for the socio-psychological process underlying risk information, communication and education efforts is outlined. The model identifies a set of message features (e.g., content clarity and acceptance), person characteristics (e.g., prior experience, cognitive biases, attitudes), social influences (e.g. , peers, media) and context factors (e.g., societal safety culture) which determine whether, and if so, how a particular risk communication regarding a hazard (i.e., a health & safety threat) influences individual risk assessment and management (i.e., risk appraisal, decision for preventive action and actual risk behavior and disaster preparedness). Three overlapping processes need to be considered and linked: how people deal with hazards, how risk information is processed and evaluated, and how accepted information affects risk perception, evaluation and behavior. As interactive risk communication is far more likely to be effective, two-way communication pathways are looked at as well.

A comprehensive model of the risk communication process is indispensable for several reasons: It may be utilized as a heuristic for designing respective programs, for measuring and assessing campaign outcomes, and for identifying barriers to risk awareness and attitude or behavior change. The presented framework can be elaborated and specified with regard to the problem type, the target audience, and the relevant attitudes and behaviors to be dealt with. It has proven useful in several studies about technological hazards as well as natural disasters. Further applications to different kinds of hazards and a variety of risk communication techniques would be worthwhile in order to explicate the soundness of the suggested socio-psychological approach to analyzing risk communication.

A socio-psychological model for analyzing
risk communication processes

1 - Facets of risk information and communication

1.1 - Tasks, types, means, situations

Communicating about hazards and the involved risks for humans and their assets is a commonplace activity which occurs in a multitude of 'arenas', ranging from systematic campaigns planned by authorities to informal exchanges in occupational or private contexts. The notion of risk communication (RC) refers to a social process by which people become informed about hazards, are influenced towards behavioral change and can participate in decision-making about risk issues. Usually this happens in a context where risk awareness and preparedness are to increased; however, sometimes the aim is to reduce concern about risks. For a systematic treatise of this very active field of research and application see, e.g., Bennet & Kalman 1999, Covello et al. 1989, Hance et al. 1990, Kasperson & Stallen 1990, Lundgren & McMakin 1998, NRC 1990, Renn 1992, Sadar & Shull 1999, The Royal Society 1992; for overviews cf. Fischhoff 1995, Fischhoff et al. 1997, Leiss 1996, Morgan et al. 1992, Plough & Krimsky 1987, Renn 1998, Rohrmann 1995(a).

Main types of RC are listed in Table 1. The aims of RC involve information, communication, education and management tasks. Many different means and procedures are used, depending on the demands of the RC situation.

1.2 - Actors and audiences

Risk communication processes involve a variety of 'actors' which may be senders, audience, or both. In addition to various risk-exposed people (employees, residents, consumers) and public authorities, further actors in the RC 'arena' are to be considered (cf. bottom of table 1), such as industry, scientific institutions, and various types of media; this alone makes RC a complex process.

Informing and communicating about risks is more likely to succeed when treated as a two-way process, when participants are seen as legitimate partners, and when people's attitudes and 'worldviews' regarding environment and technology are respected. This is particularly true in the case of risk controversies. Acceptance of risks is not an information/ education issue, it results from a societal discourse (Cvetkovich & Lofstedt 1999, Susskind & Field 1996, Wiedemann & Schuetz 2000).

Table 1: Components of the Risk Communication Process

Primary types of risk communication aims

  • Identifying unknown/difficult/controversial risk aspects (inducing RC problems)
  • Advancing/changing knowledge and attitudes regarding hazards & risk-taking
  • Modifying risk-related behavior of people exposed to hazards
  • Promoting community participation in hazard mitigation
  • Facilitating cooperation and joint conflict resolution regarding controversial risks
  • Developing disaster preparedness and emergency management

Communication means & channels

  • Print material (e.g., fliers & brochures), distributed by institutions/agencies
  • Product information, machine operating instructions, etc
  • Public information services, 'hot lines', etc
  • Educational video/film/computer products
  • Info presented via broadcasting, television, newspapers, journals & the internet
  • Expert presentations (at meetings, public hearings, trainings, drills etc)
  • Warning sirens (or messages through mobile loudspeakers)
Situations/'arenas' in which RC occurs
  • Information campaigns by authorities
  • Fullfilling 'right-to-know' legislation
  • Public hearings, conferences etc
  • Public hearings, conferences etc
  • Judicial proceedings
  • Counselling contacts, medical advice
  • Safety training courses, tests, exercises
  • Advice for handling disaster impacts
  • Evacuation
  • Private situations (e.g. in families)
Target audiences and actors
  • Risk-exposed people
  • Industry/manufacturers/companies
  • Scientific institutions
  • The general public
  • Administrative/regulatory authorities
  • Journalists/media

2 - Conceptual frameworks for analyzing
risk information/communication activities

2.1 - A structural model of the risk communication process

To design and to evaluate hazard information, risk communication and safety education programs both are demanding tasks. Practical experience may not be sufficient to ensure satisfactory results. Rather, a comprehensive theoretical framework is needed to guide risk communication efforts.

In spite of the immense literature on RC, systematic modelling of the RC process is relatively rare (cf., e.g., Earle et al. 1990, Renn 1992, Rohrmann 1992, Silverstein 1986, Powell & Leiss 1998, Zimmermann 1987) and often restricted in scope - comprehensive approaches are scarce. However, there are helpful conceptualizations in related areas such as subjective hazard evaluation (e.g., Mileti & Fitzpatrick 1991, Renn et al. 1992, Rohrmann 1994); risk-taking behavior (e.g., Trimpop 1994, Wilde 1988, Yates 1992); coping with disasters (e.g., Mulilis & Duval 1995; Paton & Long 1996, Taylor 1991); health precaution behavior (e.g., DeJoy 1996, Rogers & Prentice-Dunn 1997, Weinstein 1988, 1993); risk policy and management (e.g., Salter 1998, Slovic 1997, Vertinsky & Wehrung 1991).

The need for a sound framework becomes especially evident when RC outcomes are to be assessed (Rohrmann 1998). Thus concepts and findings from relevant research fields (social psychology, risk research, verbal communication) were integrated to develop a model of risk communication (Rohrmann 1992, 1995a, 1998).

Building a model involves two steps:

This is realized at an individual rather than collective (community) level of activities. The structural model identifies the main components of risk communication processes and specifies the factors which determine the results of risk communication efforts, referring to characteristics of the distributed messages, the conveying authority, the receiving audiences and the context in which the communication process occurs. Actually three processes overlap and need to be linked: how people deal with hazards, how risk information is processed and evaluated, and how accepted information effects risk perception, evaluation and behavior. In table 2, the 18 variable sets distinguished in the framework are listed and briefly described.

Table 2: Main components of the risk communication process

HAZARD The hazard (situation, event or substance) to which the people targeted in a RC process are or might be exposed to (i.e., a threat to health and safety)
RISK APPRAISAL (OR RE-APPRAISAL) Awareness of hazard and acknowledgement of personal exposure; risk perception and evaluation (assumed probability, duration, severity, proximity, immediacy etc of impacts)
DECISION FOR PREVENTIVE ACTION Choice between: risk-reducing behavior, new information search, no action (based on retention of received info)
RISK-REDUCING BEHAVIOR Avoiding exposure or getting prepared for impacts (individual behavior and/or participating in group/community programs)
RISK COMMUNICATION MESSAGE - CONTENT Message characteristics: argument strength, relevance, accuracy, clarity, etc.; focus: knowledge/attitude/behavior-focussed
CONTEXT OF RC RC Source: type of institution, expert status, credibility; features of information distribution; social process of RC; "channel" characteristics (eg, brochures, TV/radio, print media, videos, www, "hotlines", personal presentations); constraints of the acting agency; also, interference with other information sources
CONFIRMATION EFFORTS If information received and noticed: attempts to cross-check & validate the RC content (via same or more likely other sources), dependent on individual information needs
APPROVAL OF HAZARD MESSAGE Personal acceptance of the message regarding the nature of the hazard and the involved risk for oneself
JUDGING EXPECTED UTILITY OF PROPOSED ACTION Assumed effectiveness of the proposed measure to mitigate the risk (based on perceived difficulty, feasibility, costs and availability of alternative means of protection)
COMMUNITY / SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT J1: attitudes and behaviors of familiy members, friends, colleagues etc.
J2: social influence or pressure within one's social/cultural/political context
PERSON: CONDITIONS OF EXPOSURE Actual exposure (intensity/frequency); reasons for exposure (e.g., voluntary/non-voluntary or occupational/private); personal experience with hazard; vulnerability (person and/or assets)
PERSON: RISK-SPECIFIC BELIEFS Mental model of hazard; personal relevance of risk issue; belief in controllability; optimism bias; perceived benefits of risk source; risk propensity/aversion
PERSON: GENERAL INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERISTICS Age, sex, education, health, etc.; cognitive abilities; interests; resources (time, money)
PRIOR BELIEFS REGARDING MEASURES Knowledge and acceptance of risk mitigation measures (cf. <I>) held by the RC addressees before the current RC process
PRIOR RISK PERCEPTION Existing hazard perception and risk appraisal (cf. <B>) before current RC process
RISK/SAFETY 'CULTURE' OF SOCIETY General views held in society about the significance of risks and relevance of individual health & safety
INSTITUTIONS FOR RISK/SAFETY/HEALTH MANAGEMENT Public authorities and/or companies responsible for the health & safety of people (residents, employees, consumers etc) and therefore dealing with risk management

Several conceptual distinctions are important:

The full model is presented as a graph in Fig. 1.

The proposed causal links between the variables are indicated on a global level only, that is, for sets of related aspects of the risk communication process. (Note that 'feedback loops' are assumed as well but not fully outlined here).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Risk Communication - Process Framework

In short, the model expresses that the final outcome variable, risk-reducing behavior <D> regarding a hazard <A>, is determined not just by the communicated messages of the information/education program <E> but the result of a complex evaluation process <B-C and G-H-I>, including prior attitudes <N, O>, and influenced by personal characteristics <K, L, M> and manifold context factors, e.g., attributes of the information source and channel features <F> utilized by the respective authority/agency <Y> as well as family/peers/friends and the community one belongs to <J>; the whole process is embedded into a culture's health and safety orientation <X>. As the feedback-loops in fig. 1 indicate, risk-reducing behavior <D> is intended to mitigate the impacts of the hazard <A>; moreover, often people will link their activitities to their social network <J> or approach relevant authorities <Y>.

This risk communication model can be elaborated and/or made specific to the problem type, the target audience, and the relevant attitudes and behaviors to be dealt with. Such a framework is essential for designing evaluations and developing pertinent instruments, as well as recognizing reasons for lack of success with risk communication campaigns.

The outlined framework has been utilized in several studies on risk communication about both technological hazards and natural disasters (Rohrmann 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000).

2.2 - Risk communication as an interactive course of action

Even though this text focuses mostly on the information-behavior chain, successful RC most likely needs to be treated as an interactive process (Leiss 1996, Renn 1992, Slovic 1996, Wiedemann & Schuetz 2000). Consequently, accessibility of institutions, feedback opportunities and interactive procedures are very important.

RC can include a whole variety of interactive procedures, depending on the nature of the social 'arena' in which it takes place and the activities persued by the addressees of RC programs; cf. the examples in table 3. In fact citizens may even initiate a RC process, for example, when they alert authorities about hazards they recognize in their environment and request information or risk mitigation measures.

Table 3: Interactive risk communication processes

Some RC situations/arenas entailing two-way communication:

  • Public hearings obligatory in planning proceedings
  • Counseling of people at risk regarding risk mitigation
  • Disaster preparedness campaigns involving citizen groups
  • Mediating processes in order to resolve conflicts about risk sources or risk management procedures

Actions of RC addressees that instigate interactive processes

  • Information search via contacting authorities or experts (in person, mail, phone, internet)
  • Alerting of authorities regarding local hazards by residents or employees
  • Efforts to confirm received risk messages (e.g., phoning alternative information sources)
  • Requests regarding risk issues posted to health & safety authorities
  • Protesting against risk sources in residential areas or at the workplace

2.3 - Identifying barriers to effective risk communication

The risk communication process model can also be utilized to identify communication problems and obstacles to achieving the aims of a RC campaign. In fact missions such as enhancing workplace safety, reducing risky driving or improving fire preparedness and so on face many barriers. It is instructive to look at the essential steps of the persuasion and attitude change process, as studied in social psychology (e.g., Eagley & Chaiken 1993, McGuire 1985, Oskamp & Schultz 1998):

attention -> comprehension -> interpretation -> confirmation -> acceptance -> retention  (--> behavior change).

Difficulties can be technical or socio-psychological in nature, ranging from information distribution and storage problems to lack of involvement and inertia. Many people's overconfidence in safety matters, unrealistic optimism and cognitive biases (Kahneman et al. 1982, McClure & Williams 1996, McKenna 1992, Rothman et al. 1996, Weinstein 1989, Weinstein & Klein 1996) add to the problem. In terms of the sender, proficient management of the RC process is essential. Creating credibility and maintaining social trust - which, once missing or lost, are not easily (re-)established - is an important mission as well (Cvetkovich & Lofstedt 1999); in this regard interactive RC approaches are vital.

In figure 2, a conceptual framework for preconditions and barriers of an effective information-behavior link are outlined. For each step of the core process (from receiving information to implementing an advised action or behavior change) both internal and external preconditions must be favourable and barriers overcome to accomplish the respective RC objectives. (This model depicts an idealized process - however, it is not assumed that each step is taking place in a linear fashion; rather, some steps might not occur at all, e.g., confirmation; or the message receiver might go back to previous steps, e.g,., from retention to attention). In the light of this complex process, assuming a straight 'conversion' of information into behavior would be "unrealistic optimism" on a meta level!

Figure 2: Informing about the risks from hazards:
A framework for the information behaviour link

Again, such a model is very useful in guiding analyses of the reasons for insufficient outcomes of a risk communication program. Furthermore, it can be utilized to anticipate problems and counterbalance them by creating a favourable risk communication context.

3 - The need for assessing risk information/communication results

3.1 - Reasons for empirical evaluation studies

It is obvious that risk information/communication/education campaigns deal with important aims: human safety, health and sometimes even survival may be at stake, as well as social relations in a community in case of conflicts about hazard evaluation and risk management. Consequently it is crucial that pertinent risk communication activities actually achieve their goals. To provide evidence for this, empirical evaluation research is necessary. "Evaluation" means the scientific assessment of the content, process and outcomes of an intervention and their assessment according to defined criteria (Fink 1995, Patton 1997; see Rohrmann 1992, 1998 or Weinstein et al. 1992 with respect to RC). Systematic empirical investigations are required in order to prove the effectiveness of risk communication - simple experience is not sufficient (in fact even theoretically sound risk communication efforts might not work in practice). Furthermore, evaluation results can demonstrate not only whether but also why a program works (or not) and thus guide the improvement of RC. Also, as campaigns are laborious and usually rather expensive (in terms of costs, personnel and time), evaluation can help to justify the efforts.

While systematic program evaluations could provide very valuable confirmation, empirical evaluation research in this field is still limited (Covello et al. 1989, Fischhoff 1995, Rohrmann 1998). Actually, empirical evaluability regarding risk communication effectiveness should be incorporated into a program in advance.

3.2 - Methodological and conceptual conclusions for further research

The conceptual framework presented in this article is by no means exhaustive and complete. While it proved to be a very useful heuristic for designing RC research (and was made more comprehensive after each project), the empirical studies also indicated shortcomings - thus further research is warranted to better understand the prerequisites of effective risk communication.

In table 4, a list of pertinent research topics is presented, related to the components of RC processes, the means employed in RC, and the validity of results achieved by RC programs.

Key points include that conceptual RC frameworks should reflect the mental models (Atman et al. 1994, Bostrom et al. 1992, Jungermann et al 1988) and situational needs of people; that RC campaigns need to address cultural factors because of large cross-cultural differences in risk perception (Earle & Cvetkovich 1997, Rohrmann & Renn 2000, Steg & Sievers 2000, Vaughan 1995); and that risk communication via "new media" (E-mail, CD-Rom, the WWW; cf. e.g. Frisch et al. 1995, Fischer 1999, Joyce 1999, Quarantelli 1997) is not yet sufficiently researched in socio-psychological terms.

Table 4: Understanding risk communication: Primary research needs

Factors influencing risk communication processes

  • How do previous beliefs and new information interact in people's risk (re-)appraisal?
  • Is factual knowledge (a) regarding the hazard and (b) regarding the risk mitigation means a precondition of involvement and motivation for active risk management of individuals?
  • What is the role of 'significant others' in influencing risk knowledge and/or attitudes and/or decisions?
  • How do motivations for unsafe behavior counterbalance intentions for risk avoidance?
  • How relevant are practicality issues (e.g., technical difficulties; financial or time constraints)?

Means of risk communication

  • In which way is the assumed structure of risk communication determinants different for oral/personal communication and printmedia-based communication processes?
  • How valid is the model for risk communication via electronic media (e.g., the WWW)?

Validity of risk communication effects

  • Under which conditions are which barriers to effective RC detrimental (context-dependency of strategy outcomes)?
  • How valid are RC approaches for cultural sub-groups (especially those with a 'non-anglo' background)?
  • Does RC for children and adolescents 'work' differently?
  • In which ways can RC induce unintended effects (e.g., fear, indifference caused by cognitive overload, reactance to moral appeals, higher risk-taking because of reduced worries)
  • Stability of RC effects over time: how long do attitude and behavior changes last?

Further research will explicate to what degree a general RC model can be valid for diverse communication contexts (such as one-way information campaigns via print or electronic media versus interactive/participative RC), different communication goals (e.g., increasing awareness and preparedness for fires or alleviating concerns about the risks from chemical facilities) and different hazard types (e.g., those posing a threat to individuals or communities, or involuntary versus self-determined ones).

So far the focus has been on the individual level of risk communication processes. However, community level processes need to be addressed as well (cf., e.g., Levine 1996, Schuetz & Wiedemann 1991); this will require advanced analytical processes.

Finally - given how important and demanding both implementation and evaluation of risk communication programs are - interdisciplinary co-operation across areas and between social science and public authorities is highly recommended.


I wish to thank John Handmer (Enfield/England), Douglas Paton (Palmerston/New Zealand) and Holger Schuetz (Juelich/Germany) for their constructive feedback and Lidia Ferraro (Melbourne/ Australia) for her comprehensive help with literature research.


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Bernd Rohrmann © 2000. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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