Integrating sociological and psychological approaches to public perceptions of environmental risks: detailed results from a questionnaire survey

Claire Marris, I H Langford, T O'Riordan

Research output: Book/ReportReport

21 Citations (Scopus)
165 Downloads (Pure)


Decision-makers often despair at what they regard as fickle and unpredictable public attitudes toward environmental risks. Research has shown, however, that public perceptions of risk are not irrational. Psychologists have developed the so-called 'psychometric paradigm', which indicates that laypeople approach the meaning of 'risk' using a more political framework than that used by experts. This includes factors such as whether or not they have control over their exposure to risk, whether the effect will be immediate or delayed, and whether future generations will be affected. Sociologists have proposed a 'cultural theory of risk', which argues that alternative views about risks are inextricably inter-linked with the ways in which social order is perceived and experienced. Both these theories have been developed and promoted largely within disciplinary boundaries and in isolation from each other. This report argues that both perspectives play important roles in shaping, maintaining, and changing views about risks, and that these two components are inter-related in complex but predictable ways. Thus, the aim of this research was to advance our understanding of risk perceptions by integrating the 'psychometric paradigm' and 'cultural theory' approaches.

This paper reports the detailed results from a questionnaire survey (N=201) conducted in Norfolk (UK). Four distinct worldviews were identified, namely: fatalist, or phlegmatic over influence on outcomes; individualistic, or a preference for competitive procedures; hierarchist, or a belief in order and rules to guide decisions; and egalitarian, or an emphasis on fairness through justice. Each of these worldviews was associated with a specific pattern of risk perceptions in a manner which was consistent with cultural theory. Cultural theory, however, was only able to explain 14% at most, of the variance in risk perceptions, whereas the 'psychometric paradigm' explained as much as 50% in some cases. The authors argue that the two methodologies explained importantly different dimensions of risk perceptions, and that deeper insights into the underlying rationales are obtained by using the two approaches in a complementary manner. Thus, the combined methodology provided insights into underlying social issues of trust and accountability which play an important role in shaping risk perceptions. This research suggests that social and political frameworks which influence the way environmental threats are interpreted can be identified and that a consistent theory of reactions to risk can be established. 

Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of East Anglia
Number of pages112
Publication statusPublished - 1996


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