Meeting Three Challenges in Risk Communication: Phenomena, Numbers, and Emotions

Tim Rakow, Claire L. Heard, Ben R. Newell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Risk communication takes many forms, can serve a number of different purposes, and can inform people about a wide variety of risks. We outline three challenges that must often be met when communicating about risk, irrespective of the form or purpose of that communication, or the type of risk that this involves. The first challenge is how best to help people understand the phenomenology of the risks that they are exposed to: The nature of the risk, the mechanism(s) by which they arise, and, therefore, what can be done to manage these risks. Each risk has its own phenomenology; therefore, rather than offering generic guidance, we illustrate with the case of climate change risk how evidence from behavioral science can guide the design of messages about risk. The second challenge is how best to present quantitative risk information about risk probabilities. Here, there is potential for: Ambiguity, difficulty in evaluating quantitative information, and weak numeracy skills among those being targeted by a message. We outline when each of these difficulties is most likely to arise as a function of the precision of the message and show how messages that cover multiple levels of precision might ameliorate these difficulties. The third challenge is the role played by people’s emotional reactions to the risks that they face and to the messages that they receive about these risks. Here, we discuss the pros and cons of playing up, or playing down, the emotional content of risk communication messages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-156
JournalPolicy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015


  • risk
  • risk communication
  • numeracy
  • emotions
  • climate change

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