C8.4 Interpretation of Risk


There are three main factors why risk is perceived and therefore interpreted in different ways. These factors relate to the:

  • Individual
  • Characteristics of the Risk
  • Way the risk is communicated


Individual Factors and Risk Interpretation

A person’s individual beliefs will affect their perception of risk. This may be their previous experiences relating to a given situation.

For example, two people have both in the past polluted a watercourse. One was prosecuted by the Environmental Regulator. Their perception of risk relating to water pollution will be high as they are aware of the consequences.

The other person however was not even investigated. Their perception of risk relating to water pollution will be low, as although the may be aware of the consequences, their experience dictates that they ‘know’ the risk is low.

The perception of risk may also be influenced by a person’s education and knowledge. Anyone who has studied environmental issues is more aware of the potential consequences of various issues and is therefore more able to interpret environmental risk. This is not limited to formal academic education; awareness of issues is important, which may have been obtained from training at work or the media.


Characteristics of the Risk and Risk Interpretation

The nature of the environmental risk will affect how it is perceived and interpreted. Factors that may affect this include whether the risk can be controlled, if it is involuntary, if it is novel (new, not fully understood) or if it has significant consequences (e.g. imprisonment).


Communication of Risk and Risk Interpretation

The way in which an environmental risk in communicated will affect how it is perceived and interpreted. An excellent example of this is Climate Change. Mixed messages in the media confuse people. One day we are told that the world is doomed and the next we are told that we should turn our lights off and we’ll all be OK. The message is unclear in terms of how serious the problem is, how much action is needed and when that action must be taken.

If an environmental risk is to be perceived and interpreted, it must be communicated in an accurate and consistent manner.