Posted: November 3, 2012
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Article SummaryFamiliar risks lose their capacity to provoke outrage, and people get careless. Unfamiliar risks, on the other hand, are likelier to be upsetting. So if you’re doing outrage management – if you’re a factory manager trying to keep your neighbors calm, for example – familiarity is your ally. But if you’re doing precaution advocacy – an activist trying to arouse public concern, or a safety professional trying to motivate employees to wear their hardhats – familiarity is your enemy. Either way, managing familiarity is a significant part of the risk communication job. Those are the basics. But this column goes beyond the basics, getting down in the weeds of managing risk familiarity. It focuses especially on two distinctions: the distinction between familiarity and perceived familiarity (fluency); and the distinction among familiarity with the overall situation, familiarity with the risk, and familiarity with the bad outcome (memorability).

Managing Risk Familiarity

Some of the content of this column has been lifted from the familiarity and memorability sections of my 1993 Responding to Community Outrage link is to a PDF file book and my 1998 “OUTRAGE Prediction and Management” software.

I wanted to revisit the topic for two reasons. First, website readers usually don’t get around to downloading the book or the software. And second, both book and software focus exclusively on the outrage management side of the coin: addressing familiarity and memorability issues in order to calm stakeholders’ outrage. This column also considers the precaution advocacy side: the role of familiarity and memorability when the goal is to arouse increased outrage.

It’s a basic tenet of risk perception that people tend to take a risk seriously or shrug it off mostly in response to factors like familiarity, control, trust, dread, and responsiveness – factors I have labeled collectively the “outrage factors.” link is to a PDF file It follows that the most effective way to manage people’s response to risk is to manage the outrage factors … manage the outrage down if you think people are overreacting to a trivial risk, and manage it up if you think they are under-reacting to a serious risk.

But as is so often the case, the details are more complicated than the principles. In this column, I want to get down in the weeds about one outrage factor: familiarity.

First the basics.

People usually underestimate familiar risks. Having driven a car for years without an accident, we find it hard to remember that driving is a serious risk. Getting on the back of an elephant feels like a much riskier way to travel.

For the most part, we don’t “estimate” familiar risks at all; they’re too familiar to bother thinking about. Most of us get into our cars without ever considering whether driving is a significant risk. If we did pause to estimate the risk of driving, we might or might not recognize that it is sizable. But familiarity closes our minds to the very question.

Too much familiarity, in fact, is one of the biggest communication problems in employee safety. Employees are typically so familiar with workplace risks that the outrage disappears. Pretty soon they aren’t taking the prescribed precautions seriously enough, and the accident rate goes up. As safety trainers know, even the most dramatic warnings lose their capacity to provoke outrage (and caution) when they become familiar. Similarly, the most dangerous driver on the road isn’t the brand-new driver crawling along timorously. The most dangerous driver is the same teenager a year or so later, still not very skillful but now familiar with the experience and far too confident – and the elderly driver whose decades of familiarity obscure the new reality of slowed reaction time.

When you’re trying to alarm people – to get them to take precautions or demand precautions – familiarity is your enemy.

But when you’re trying to reassure people, familiarity is your ally. This explains why the most outspoken opponents of many controversial facilities are located comparatively far from the facility. The nearest neighbors presumably face a greater hazard, but their familiarity with the facility is higher and so their outrage is lower. (Often the nearest neighbors also get more benefits from the facility; that makes the risk fairer, which makes the outrage lower, which disinclines them to focus much on the hazard.)

One tried-and-true strategy for ameliorating outrage is therefore to increase familiarity. The perceived risk of technologies goes down as the technology gets more familiar. So does the perceived risk of leisure activities. And of investments. Of course increasing familiarity in order to decrease outrage is a good thing only if the technologies, leisure activities, or investments are fairly safe. It’s a problem if they are fairly dangerous.

Consider hazardous waste cleanups, for example. A longstanding barrier to cleaning up hazardous waste sites is that the cleanup technology is exotic and therefore tends to provoke outrage. It was a familiar puddle of crud, unattractive but familiar: “Hey, I’ll meet you by the lagoon.” Suddenly, it goes high-tech. There’s a trailer camp of consultants; they’re sinking high-pressure injection wells; maybe they’re bringing a rotary kiln incinerator to the site. Remediation technicians are walking around the site in moon suits. Talk about double messages! Did you ever have anybody knock on your door in a moon suit? “Just testing your drinking water, nothing to worry about.” All that unfamiliar high-tech paraphernalia increases the outrage. Just as the hazard is about to go down, a familiar risk becomes an exotic risk, and the outrage skyrockets.

So it pays to organize a media event in front of City Hall the week before the cleanup starts. Let kids walk around in the moon suits. Demythologize the technology; make it familiar. You’ll probably also want to explain that occupational safety rules call for hazwaste workers to wear their protective gear at all times – partly because their exposure is cumulative and “up close and personal,” partly because they need to be ready if anything unexpected happens, but mostly because it’s easier to have a consistent procedure than to ask your employees to keep assessing what PPE to wear this time. But it’s not the explanation that will reassure neighbors the most. It’s the kids walking around in the moon suits.

The basic principle in a nutshell: Familiarity signals safety. So if you want people to be more concerned and therefore more cautious, you should try to make the situation less familiar (or remind them of the ways in which it is unfamiliar). If you want people to be less concerned and less cautious, on the other hand, you should try to make the situation more familiar (or remind them of the ways in which it is familiar).

Even this basic principle has occasional exceptions. For most people most of the time, familiarity has an outrage-reducing impact. We get used to the situation and desensitized to its downsides. But once in a while familiarity has exactly the opposite effect. Most neighbors of a noisy industrial facility, for example, become accustomed to the noise and it stops bothering them so much. But for a handful of neighbors the noise just gets more and more intrusive and intolerable. Finally they cross some tipping point; either they move or they organize an activist group. A small number of people who can’t adjust to the situation can sometimes have a huge impact. But they’re still the exception. The rule remains: Familiarity signals safety, so more familiarity leads to less outrage.

Fluency: Familiarity versus Perceived Familiarity

Like so much else in risk communication, familiarity is in the eye of the beholder. What matters most isn’t how familiar someone actually is with a risky situation; it’s how familiar he or she feels. It’s perceived familiarity that matters most.

People can feel unfamiliar with a situation they actually understand quite well or, conversely, they can feel familiar with something they don’t understand at all.

One highly significant source of perceived familiarity is “processing fluency” – the ease with which information is perceived or remembered. Actual familiarity increases processing fluency, of course. If you have experienced a stimulus a lot of times before, your mind can process it more easily. So we get used to the association of processing fluency with familiarity. Then along comes something that’s easy to process for reasons other than familiarity … and we mistakenly think it’s familiar because it’s easy to process.

A stranger who looks a lot like one of your oldest friends, for example, almost instantly seems like someone you’re going to like. Intellectually you know that s/he is a stranger. But s/he seems pleasantly, comfortably, safely familiar – and you’re well on your way toward feeling friendly before you’ve even been introduced.

Consider this elegant study link is to a PDF file by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz. College students were asked to judge the degree of hazard posed by ten food additives (all of them made-up 12-letter nonsense words). Five of the “additives” were fairly easy to pronounce (e.g. Magnalroxate), while the other five were very difficult (e.g. Hnegripitrom). Ease of pronunciation is a classic example of processing fluency. Since all ten nonsense words were completely unfamiliar, fluency in this case couldn’t have had anything to do with actual familiarity. Nonetheless, the students thought the hard-to-pronounce (disfluent) hypothetical additives were more novel (that is, less familiar) – and also considered them more hazardous. Statistical analysis demonstrated that perceived novelty mediated the effect of ease-of-pronunciation on perceived risk. In other words, hard-to-pronounce food additives seemed more dangerous than easy-to-pronounce additives because they seemed less familiar.

In a follow-up study, link is to a PDF file the same authors showed that hard-to-pronounce nonexistent amusement park rides were perceived as more exciting and adventurous than easy-to-pronounce rides, again because they sounded less familiar. But they were also perceived as likelier to make riders nauseated. As Song and Schwartz commented in a review article on fluency research, “the ease with which the names of stimuli could be pronounced influenced their perceived familiarity. This perceived familiarity, in turn, influenced how risky the stimuli seemed, no matter if the risk was desirable or undesirable.”

The concept of “desirable risk” may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t – and we have more than the faux risk of amusement park rides to prove the point. Consider the growing popularity of adventure travel and extreme sports, where the risk is real. People vary widely in their risk aversion, risk tolerance, and even risk seeking. And the same individual varies widely over time. In most ways we get more risk-averse, and more wedded to the familiar, as we get older. But we often resist doing so – one factor contributing to the phenomenon of the midlife crisis.

In case you didn’t know it already, there is also research demonstrating that people seek out familiar-seeming (fluent) stimuli more when they’re feeling sad than when they’re feeling happy. The authors of one such study explain that people in a bad mood choose familiar-seeming stimuli “presumably because familiarity signals safety.” They emphasize the role of fluency: “This preference can occur with merely repeated ‘old’ stimuli, but it is most robust with ‘new’ but highly familiar prototypes of a known category.” People in a good mood feel safe enough already, the authors say, which “eliminates the preference for familiar stimuli.”

Fluency matters in the real world too. A 2006 study looked at the performance of newly issued stocks with easy-to-pronounce or difficult-to-pronounce ticker symbols (e.g. KAR versus RDO). A $1,000 investment in stocks with fluent ticker symbols did $85.35 better on the first day of trading than a $1,000 investment in stocks with disfluent ticker symbols. Even after a year of trading, the fluent basket of stocks was still $20.25 ahead of the disfluent basket. Presumably the stocks with easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols seemed more familiar and therefore less risky to investors, who were therefore willing to pay more for them.

The Song and Schwarz review article, by the way, was entitled “If it’s easy to read, it’s easy to do, pretty, good, and true.” Another study summarized in the article found that identical exercise instructions were judged to take nearly twice as long to complete when printed in a hard-to-read font than when the font was easy to read. Recipes looked easier to follow in fluent fonts than is disfluent fonts. (So fancy fonts in restaurants are a good idea, signaling that you’re buying a meal that’s hard to cook; fancy fonts in a cookbook are a bad idea, signaling that following the recipe will be too much work.) Statements of fact were more likely to be judged truthful when printed with a color contrast that made reading easy than when the color of the words and the color of the background were too similar. Rhyming aphorisms were considered more truthful than non-rhyming aphorisms. Prototypical faces (such as computer composites of many people’s faces) were judged more attractive than more unusual faces.

Whatever the outcome variable (perception of riskiness, ease of implementation, truth, beauty, etc.), the causal links here are the same: processing fluency → perceived familiarity → safer, easier to do, truer, prettier, etc.

So maybe safety messaging should put warnings about the risk in a hard-to-read font (hard to read means unfamiliar means scary) but information about the recommended precautions in an easy-to-read font (easy to read means easy to do).

And think about all those really complicated corporate pamphlets and PowerPoints explaining how the factory or the mine or the power plant works. The goal is presumably to make the technical stuff more familiar and thus less alarming. But explanations that are tough to understand can easily backfire. If I’m having trouble understanding you, the disfluency of your explanation is working against your effort to make the technology more familiar.

The weirdest fluency/disfluency example I can remember occurred in Australia, where I was working on a controversy about cell phone towers (“mobile phone masts,” in Australia). Neighbors objected vociferously when a new tower went up in a residential neighborhood. In interviews with some of the strongest opponents, one unexpected complaint kept cropping up: Some people felt like the tower was looking into their windows, spying on their private lives. It was a bit of a stretch to picture the electronic equipment on top of the tower as a face, but we decided to take the image literally. Would it help if we painted eyes on the tower top, and painted them shut? Yes, a number of interviewees responded, a little surprised at their own response. It was done, and it did help. The unadorned tower equipment had been disfluent and had felt threatening. Adding closed eyes made the tower easier to process as a sleeping face and thus an unthreatening part of the neighborhood.

My own favorite cell tower, adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike, looks to me like an abstract sculpture of an evergreen tree. For me it’s fluent, easily processed as tree-art. I anticipate seeing it with pleasure whenever I drive that stretch of the turnpike.

Or consider this excerpt – entitled “Safety v. familiarity” – from the blog of an American woman who spent some time visiting in South Africa, and then a year in Malawi.

I felt safer traveling in South Africa than I feel in Lilongwe [Malawi’s capital city] … because everything in Lilongwe is unfamiliar. In contrast, the urbanized parts of South Africa I visited were much more similar to the United States than to Malawi. There was a visible police presence, lots of people walking on the streets, working streetlights and stoplights, and (relatively) clear signage….

The irony, of course, is that I imagine Malawi has a much lower crime rate than South Africa…. Certainly, crimes in Malawi are less violent than crimes in South Africa; most assailants have panga knives rather than guns, and most crimes are property-driven.

But cities in South Africa feel like cities in the US, and there is a sense of safety in familiarity….

I had heard lots about South Africa’s crime rate before I visited, and I was honestly expecting to feel less safe than I did. Other than having my Leatherman stolen from my luggage (yes, I am still whining about that), I had no incidences worth mentioning. Of course, I am a relatively cautious person, and try not to put myself in stupid places. But it came as a revelation to me: safety is, in large part, familiarity with my surroundings and ability to read them.

Of course South Africa wasn’t really more familiar to this blog author than Malawi; both were new and unfamiliar countries, with new and unfamiliar risks. But for her, South Africa was more fluent. So it felt safer, even though she suspected the data would show it was actually less safe. The most dangerous situation is when we feel familiar and safe in a situation that is objectively unfamiliar and risky.

The fluency/familiarity/risk relationship represents a serious paradox for safety professionals. As we teach people about a risk and help them understand it better, understand what precautions they should take, understand how to manage the precautions, etc., we make the risk seem more familiar – and it therefore loses some of its capacity to provoke outrage … which makes it that much harder for us to keep people motivated to take the precautions. The factors conducive to understanding how to stay safe are thus antithetical in some ways to the factors conducive to feeling a need to stay safe.

In short, making a risk more familiar makes it safer, because people know more about how to protect themselves. But making it more fluent (more familiar-seeming) also makes it feel safer, so we relax our guard – which makes it less safe. Safety training really does make people more secure. And it really does inculcate a false sense of security.

Can you have your cake and eat it too? Can you make a risk more familiar without making it feel more familiar? Does it help, for example, to familiarize employees with the safety equipment and procedures while leaving the unsafe situation, the risk itself, mysterious, unfamiliar-seeming, and thus outrage-arousing? Conceivably. But while it may be possible to mitigate the fluency/familiarity/risk paradox, I don’t see any way to eliminate it.

Consider repetition, for example. We repeat safety information again and again in the hope that it will sink in. That makes sense. Safety information is often boring, and repetition is one pretty effective way to get people to absorb boring information. (See my column on “Motivating Attention.”) But repetition is also a key component of processing fluency. That is, frequently repeated messages are easier to process. So as we repeat our risk warnings, we make them more fluent, which makes them seem more familiar, which makes them less scary.

There is no such fluency/familiarity/risk paradox when you’re trying to calm people down. Whereas familiar (or familiar-seeming) warnings lose some of their capacity to arouse outrage, reassurances become more and more reassuring as the information they contain gets more and more familiar.

Familiarity with What? (Part One)

Okay, so increasing (perceived) familiarity is a good way to reduce outrage, and reducing (perceived) familiarity is a good way to increase outrage.

But familiarity with what, exactly? Among the options:

  • The event – making people feel more/less familiar with something that happened or will happen or might happen
  • The substance – making people feel more/less familiar with some chemical or other substance that plays a role in the situation at hand: how it looks, how it smells, etc.
  • The technology – making people feel more/less familiar with how the processes work, the science and engineering behind them
  • The location – making people feel more/less familiar with the site, the place where everything happens
  • The equipment – making people feel more/less familiar with the machinery that’s used
  • The vocabulary – making people feel more/less familiar with what things are called, especially the technical terms that sound scary when they’re unfamiliar
  • The company and the industry – making people feel more/less familiar with the company that’s doing the work and the industry it’s part of
  • The people – making people feel more/less familiar with the key individuals involved
  • The technical data – making people feel more/less familiar with the technical information that underlies the assessment of risk

A few of these deserve further discussion.

Re substance:

Very often unfamiliar chemicals get used to make familiar products – or are even ingredients in those products. Lumber and paper, for example, are familiar; but the parts-per-trillion of dioxin emitted by the sawmill are not. Similarly, it is harder to be frightened of gasoline than of benzene in the gasoline. So telling people that an unfamiliar chemical whose very name sounds scary is found in lots of familiar products they use every day is a pretty effective way to reduce their outrage about the chemical. On the other side of the coin, telling people that a familiar product contains a dozen unfamiliar, scary-sounding chemicals is a pretty effective way to increase their outrage about the product.

If you’re on the outrage-reducing side of a controversy, trying to avoid mentioning scary-sounding chemicals is a lost cause; it simply empowers your critics to bring it up at moments of their own choosing. The only viable option is to make the chemical more familiar.

A chemical named 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC to its friends) is an adhesive used in the latex backing on most carpets; it is the principal source of the distinctive new carpet odor. Although 4-PC has no known harmful effects, a couple of decades ago I worked on a controversy over whether it might be harmful. I urged my client, a carpet industry trade association, to advise retailers to offer wary customers a swatch of new carpeting to take home with them. “Get used to the smell and see if it bothers you,” I thought salespeople should say. “If you don’t like the smell, we can unroll your carpeting in the warehouse and leave it for a few days so most of the 4-PC can dissipate before we install it in your house. But a lot of people like the smell. It tells the world you just got new carpeting!” My client was considering a scratch-and-sniff advertising campaign when the controversy blew over.

Re technology:

Cultures vary in their receptiveness to new technologies. In the most receptive countries, an unfamiliar technology is likelier to be greeted with fascination and even enthusiasm than with outrage – unless there is some other outrage factor at work (dread, for example, or unfairness). But acceptance that's not accompanied by familiarity is paper-thin. As soon as problems or objections arise, the unfamiliarity of the technology makes the problems seem bigger and the objections more credible.

It is widely supposed that high-tech processes are more susceptible to outrage than low-tech processes. This is generally true, but only if the high-tech process isn’t familiar. Once it is, people forget it’s high-tech. Televisions have made this transition for virtually everyone, at least in the developed world; computers and cell phones have made it for almost everyone except the elderly; robots and cloned animals have made it for only a very few.

Re location:

Part of locational familiarity is simply whether people have been there or not; that’s why plant tours help reduce outrage. But as you know from the previous discussion of fluency, it also matters whether the location seems familiar – whether it seems similar to other, familiar locations elsewhere. Some industrial sites look simple and accessible (fluent) the first time you see them; others strike people as strange and forbidding and take a long time to stop looking scary.

Just because it has dominated the landscape for decades, don’t assume your industrial site must be familiar to its neighbors. It is to some neighbors, especially if they’re also employees. For others the site remains alien and exotic. (“Who knows what really goes on there?”)

When you’re on the precaution advocacy side of the issue, trying to arouse some much-needed concern, a familiar location makes your task significantly harder. Radon is a decay product of uranium in the soil. It rises through the rock and soil, and if it happens to hit the surface under your house, it rises into your basement, where it concentrates and threatens you with lung cancer. Well, I stopped being afraid of my basement when I was five years old! It is very hard to get people to take a risk seriously when it strikes in such familiar turf as their own homes. My home is my castle, my sanctuary. Radon emanating from an industrial source – the radon-emitting gypsum waste stack of a phosphate mine, for example – is quite another story. Of course, once people do come to grips with a risk on their home turf, they may be all the more outraged at the invasion. But often they simply don’t come to grips with it; the familiarity of home makes it hard to believe the risk could be serious.

Re vocabulary:

When you’re trying to keep outrage low, the choice between avoiding unfamiliar language and working to make it familiar is a tough one. If there is no controversy now and none on the horizon, it probably makes sense to eschew polysyllabic prose. But if you have opponents, why leave it to them to point out that your trademarked “SafeClean” product is really 2,3-polydimethylmeatloaf?

Chemical company middle managers endlessly circulate parody warnings about the risks of “dihydrogen monoxide,” which is present in many foods and healthcare products despite the documented fact that thousands die every year from overexposure. Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water. Ferrous oxide is rust – but you could probably get a roomful of reporters rushing for their cars to cover a ferrous oxide spill. In the face of all this, something like “2,3-polydimethylmeatloaf” sounds like it just has to be dangerous. There’s no point in running away from the problem; your only feasible option is to get people used to good-ole 2,3-poly.

This is generally true of scary vocabulary, I think. Making the term familiar and thus less scary is a better course than trying to avoid it altogether. I urge my shale gas clients to embrace “fracking” rather than insisting on “hydraulic fracturing.” I urge my Canadian oil sands clients to use “tar sands” interchangeably with “oil sands.” Pretending that “biosolids” aren’t human waste used as fertilizer strikes me as just as self-defeating as trying to get away with “rapid oxidation” as a euphemism for “explosion.”

Re people:

The outrage provoked by a potentially risky situation is significantly lower when you know the people who are managing the situation (unless, of course, to know them is to hate and mistrust them).

This is too obvious to belabor, but it’s also too important to leave unsaid. If the plant manager is a stranger or an arrogant jerk, it’s very easy to believe the plant is a serious hazard. If the plant manager has been a community fixture for years, coaches a kids’ sports team or sings in a church choir, shows up at Fourth of July picnics, and seems like the kind of person you’d like to have over to dinner, it’s a lot tougher to stay worried about what might be coming out of the plant’s smokestacks.

Familiarity with What? (Part Two)

Another way of framing the “familiarity with what” question is in terms of familiarity with the overall situation versus familiarity with the risk – that is, with risk-related aspects of the situation: the risky substance, process, event, activity, or whatever.

Familiarity with the overall situation reduces outrage. That’s why plant tours calm neighbors, and why new employees are often anxious. But familiarity with the risk reduces outrage a great deal more than familiarity with the overall situation.

Horror writer Stephen King once told an interviewer that the biggest problem in making horror movies was to sustain the horror after the audience had seen the monster. The unseen monster is terrifying; the sight itself is likely to be a letdown. Unlike King, companies trying to reduce community outrage don’t want to sustain the horror. So they should let people see the monster. That is, they should make people familiar with the bad news, the risks and problems.

On plant tours, for example, it’s important to show anxious neighbors the parts of the plant they’re actually anxious about!

Similarly, it’s important to talk about the controversial claims your critics are making. You have to figure that many of those who decide to tour your plant have already heard what your critics have to say, and most of the rest will hear from your critics sooner or later. Use the tour to familiarize them with your take on the controversy – to acknowledge your critics’ valid points and respond to some you think are invalid.

It’s a different story, of course, if you’re confident that your stakeholders will never see the monster, never think they see the monster, never even worry that there might be a monster. Then, arguably, their ignorance is your bliss (assuming that you are correct that the monster truly isn’t dangerous). But in most risk controversies, the monster is on people’s minds already, and any attempt to avoid talking about it just exacerbates the outrage.

Talking about the monster, on the other hand, usually alleviates the outrage. This is the most crucial truth about familiarity: It’s familiarity with the scary information that really calms people, not familiarity with the neutral or pleasant stuff. If calming people is your goal, try to make frightening information familiar so it loses its capacity to provoke outrage. Think of it as a sort of desensitization therapy.

Faced with periodic concern about electromagnetic fields from power lines, a number of electric utilities have found it useful to offer to send a technician to customers’ homes with a gaussmeter, so they can find out for themselves the extent of the EMF exposure. This offer has had several effects on outrage, all of them in a downward direction. The fact that the utility is willing to tell people about the risk seems to build trust and lessen concern even among the vast majority who do not exercise the option – as if the mere availability of the gaussmeter were reassurance enough. The surprisingly small number who do ask for a visit make the valuable discovery that microwave ovens and electric blankets usually yield higher readings than the transmission line through the back yard. Most interesting from a familiarity perspective is the almost universal decline in concern experienced by homeowners as they collect their EMF readings – even when the readings themselves are comparatively high. Knowing is almost always less scary than wondering.

Or consider a finding by the National Institute for Chemical Studies (NICS) that people who watched a videotape about sheltering-in-place in the event of a chemical plant emergency reduced their estimates of the probability of such an emergency. Unless legally required to do so, most chemical companies have steadfastly refused to say much to their neighbors about emergency preparedness and emergency response, fearing that any discussion of these topics would frighten people unduly. The NICS study (which dates back to the 1990s and is no longer available) suggests that the discussion calmed people down.

Similarly, when hazardous facility managements do finally bite the bullet and discuss worst case scenarios with their neighbors, the typical response isn’t panic. It’s the sound of the other shoe dropping, relief that the topic is at last on the table.

This is all profoundly counterintuitive. The natural inclination when you’re trying to calm people’s fears is to avoid talking about what they’re afraid of and what critics say they should be afraid of … and instead to tell them about all the good stuff. So lots of corporate get-to-know-us events focus excessively on benefits of the facility they’re promoting or defending and say little or nothing about its risks, both real and alleged – which remain as unfamiliar and therefore as frightening on the way out the door as they were on the way in.

Riskcomm-savvy pediatric surgeons, for example, take children scheduled for surgery on tours of the operating room, not just the hospital grounds. They show the kids the mask that will be used to put them to sleep, maybe even let them touch one and hold it up to their faces. Does the tour frighten the child? Absolutely – but not as much as going into surgery without any orientation.

Of course it’s possible to go too far. It’s probably not a good idea to show pre-op kids a scalpel.

But there’s not much danger that organizations on the reassuring side of risk controversies will go too far in promoting familiarity. The danger is that they’ll avoid promoting familiarity altogether. They may keep mum, aiming for the lowest possible profile. They may insist that there’s no risk worth becoming familiar with, or that they have everything under control and there’s no reason for anybody else to try to get up to speed.

Or they may tell people that it’s all too complicated for them to understand anyway. This is a hard message to convey without sounding patronizing. “Don't worry your pretty little head about it, sweetheart” is the classic of the genre. So instead of explicitly telling people they’ll never understand the intricacies of a risk controversy, a shrewd company may choose instead to invite them to master all those intricacies … figuring they’ll quickly decide for themselves that it’s too complicated, and opt out of the issue altogether. I believe this is the secret purpose of those tiny-type textbook-like advertisements you sometimes see in prestige newspapers and magazines, complete with graphs and footnotes. (Herb Schmertz of Mobil pioneered this strategy back in the 1980s.) The ads purport to urge readers to join the advertiser’s side on whatever controversy is under discussion. But the real goal, I suspect, is to talk the reader out of having any opinion on the issue at all. “You don’t understand this techy stuff,” the underlying message suggests. “You’re not even going to read the fine print in this ad, are you? So butt out.”

The benefit of this strategy is to reduce people’s interest in the controversy, leaving it to the lobbyists and other insiders – a very creative way to use advertising. The drawback is that stakeholders end up unfamiliar with the situation, and convinced they cannot improve their familiarity even if they want to. This ups their outrage. For a while they may butt out as you wanted them to. But if they do eventually get involved, they’ll be on the other side, they’ll be hostile, and they’ll be inclined to insist that the facts don’t matter. On balance, then, intentionally overcomplicated communications are a very sophisticated way to do yourself in.

If you’re on the reassuring side of a risk controversy, trying to reduce people’s outrage, increasing their familiarity with the risk should be your goal.

Sometimes it’s enough to aim for increased familiarity, whether you actually achieve it or not. Consider two stakeholders, both of them pretty ignorant about the risk. One figures if she ever wants to know more, she’ll just read your brochure, go to a few meetings, ask questions, and quickly get up to speed. The other feels he’ll never understand what you’re up to, because the issues are too complicated and you can talk rings around him. In both cases, familiarity is low. But the unfamiliarity is a lot likelier to lead to outrage for the second stakeholder than for the first.

This is the main value of many outreach programs. The number of people who actually participate in an open house, go on a tour, visit an information center, attend a meeting, or read a brochure is usually a small percentage of the target audience. In fact, the people you actually reach are often an entirely predictable cohort of supporters and critics – the ones whose familiarity with the situation is already abnormally high. An important question, then, is how many people know about the open house, tour, information center, meeting, or brochure, and believe that if they availed themselves of these resources their questions would be answered and their unfamiliarity reduced. If you can get them to actually use your outreach program, that’s even better … but don’t dismiss the value of just showing them it’s available.

Even people who have been clamoring to know more may not avail themselves of your familiarity efforts. Now they know the information is there for the asking; they know they can start climbing the learning curve whenever they decide to do so. Sometimes that’s enough.

A mining company client was planning the demolition of a contaminated former smelter site. A neighborhood meeting would be useful, the site manager decided, to hear people’s suggestions or concerns and make sure they were familiar with what was going to happen. Many hours went into planning the meeting and notifying the neighbors. Those nearest the site received personal telephone calls inviting them to come. And virtually nobody came. A failure? A waste of time? Neither, I think. As a result of the company’s effort, most neighbors were aware of the meeting. They were reminded that the demolition was about to start. They were shown that the company was determined to be open rather than secretive. And they knew what number to call if they wanted to know more. The fact that they didn’t especially want to know more was a compliment, not a problem.

Given that familiarity with the risk-related aspects of the situation reduces outrage, the question is how much outrage – and therefore how much familiarity – you ought to want. This is an easy question to answer if you’re on the reassuring side of a risk controversy: You want as little outrage and as much familiarity as possible.

But it’s a tough question for safety professionals to answer. From a safety perspective, too unfamiliar and too familiar are both problematic. The relationship between accident likelihood and years on the job, for example, is a -shaped curve. New employees have more accidents than those who have been on the job for awhile because they don’t know what they’re doing; everything is new and unfamiliar. But precisely because everything is new and unfamiliar, at least new employees are careful. Veterans have more accidents than those who have been on the job for awhile because they’re no longer so careful. Excessive familiarity has worn down their outrage – that is, their concern and therefore their caution.

Absolutely everybody in the workforce of every organization in the world has worked his or her entire career without ever once getting killed on the job. This may sound like a silly point to make, but it matters. The lesson of experience – of familiarity – is invariably that this job doesn’t kill. In most workplaces, very few employees have ever seen anyone die on the job. That’s a good thing, of course, but once again the lesson of familiarity is that caution isn’t required.

And don’t forget the sign at the plant gate reading “X many months since a lost time accident.” Signs of this sort are meant to underline the importance of safety and to instill pride in the facility’s safety record. But such signs can backfire – not just because people hesitate to ruin the record by reporting an accident, but also because the sign is easily interpreted as meaning that LTAs are highly unlikely and caution is therefore unnecessary.

So how do you “renew” people’s sense of unfamiliarity in the workplace, and the caution it produces? Of course you can rotate people into new jobs – but that means creating genuine unfamiliarity, a mixed blessing: They’ll be more careful, but also less experienced. A better strategy is to change some aspect of the job that will make it feel less familiar without making it actually less familiar. That is, you want to make the job periodically less fluent, so that employees will become – if only temporarily – more careful.

A good example is the phenomenon of “familiarity sign blindness.”

Every day of someone’s working life they may well be pushing through the same double doors in the corridor that clearly states on both sides of both doors “Fire door keep shut”. However, because they are so familiar with the sign … on a hot summer ‘s day they may well attempt to wedge open these same doors to allow fresh air around the building. This familiarity sign blindness is not easily combated…. [T]he building’s responsible person … may also consider refreshing the sign, perhaps by installing a new, different style of sign relaying the same message.

This suggestion comes from a sign company with an obvious interest in selling more signs. I don’t know if it has been tested empirically. But it makes good theoretical sense.

Another suggestion I see from time to time is to instruct people about how familiarity with a risk tends to make them careless, dulling their awareness and their concern (their outrage). A 2005 presentation link is to a PDF file  by ExxonMobil safety expert Joseph M. Deeb, for example, has a page entitled “Altering Risk Perception.” One of its main thrusts is that it’s possible to train employees on the ways in which their risk perceptions are likely to be distorted – and that such training helps reduce accidents. Among Deeb’s recommendations: “Train employees on how familiarity breeds lower risk perception.”

I haven’t seen any evidence that teaching people about the effects of familiarity reduces those effects.

I accept that it’s possible for people to discipline themselves to overcome the various biases and “heuristics” that influence and sometimes distort our perception of risk – including the outrage factors such as familiarity. When journalists ask me what ordinary people should do about the distinction between hazard and outrage, I typically advise a kind of double-entry bookkeeping. “Give yourself permission to get outraged even about small hazards,” I say. “But try to remember that your outrage isn’t a good measure of how serious the hazard is. And try to take serious hazards seriously even if nothing is happening to provoke your outrage.”

But even as I give this advice, I realize that it’s very difficult advice to take. Rather than training the public to realize that a low-hazard risk is low-hazard even when it’s high-outrage, I focus on counseling communicators on ways to reduce outrage about low-hazard risks. Rather than training the public to realize that a high-hazard risk is high-hazard even when it’s low-outrage, I focus on counseling communicators on ways to increase outrage about high-hazard risks.

I think it’s very hard to train people to decide how serious a risk is without being influenced by how familiar it feels. It’s a lot more feasible – though still not easy – to work on making low-hazard risks feel more familiar and high-hazard risks feel less familiar.

In precaution advocacy, teaching people that familiarity with a risk may inappropriately reduce their outrage probably doesn’t help much to sustain their outrage.

But in outrage management, when the goal is to reduce people’s outrage, it can help a lot to acknowledge that unfamiliarity with the risk may be contributing to their concern.

Even a simple acknowledgment of the unfamiliarity itself can have a calming effect. “Here comes a six-syllable chemical mouthful” is a pretty good way to introduce a contaminant that nobody is likely to have heard of before. “Some people tell me this reminds them of science fiction” is a pretty good way to introduce a video on your proposed waste disposal site. “The concept of statistical significance bewilders everyone until they get used to it” is a pretty good way to introduce your epidemiology results.

What determines whether these acknowledgements are effective or not? Mostly the extent to which they come across as patronizing. That, in turn, is largely a matter of where you seem to be putting the blame for the unfamiliarity problem. “Our company has done a rotten job of making this point clear” earns full credit. So does “Please stop me if I get so caught up in jargon and details that I confuse everybody about the important stuff.” “This part is really hard to understand” earns half credit. No credit for “You weren't listening” or “You should have come to our last meeting if you wanted to know that” or “You lack the educational background to follow my point.”

Memorability: Familiarity with the Bad Outcome

The bottom line so far: Familiarity with a risk decreases our outrage, which decreases our risk perception, which decreases our precaution-taking. Unfamiliarity, on the other hand, increases outrage, risk perception, and precaution-taking.

Familiarity with the bad outcome is a different kettle of fish altogether. It increases outrage – concern, anxiety, fear – and therefore increases caution. This is why seriously injured employees make good safety spokespeople. “Look at me! That’s the result of a moment of carelessness. It happened to me. It can happen to you.” This is also why high school driver’s ed courses show lots of videos of car crashes, or even take students on a field trip to the junkyard to see firsthand what carelessness can do to a car and its occupants.

Because familiarity with the bad outcome works in exactly the opposite way as familiarity with the overall situation or its risk-related aspects, I have usually labeled it “memorability” instead of familiarity. If you’ve seen things go badly wrong, then it’s memorable for you that things really can go badly wrong. Increased memorability leads to increased outrage and therefore to increased precaution-taking. And decreased memorability leads to decreased outrage and therefore to decreased precaution-taking.

What I am calling “memorability” or “familiarity with the bad outcome” is a special case of “the availability heuristic” – a label coined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1973. Tversky and Kahneman summarized the availability heuristic as an unconscious belief that “if you can think of it, it must be important.” In the sorts of situations we’re talking about here, that translates to: “If you can easily imagine or remember awful things happening, you tend to think they’re likelier to happen.”

Memorability is thus the flip side of familiarity. Familiarity is the extent to which you have lived with the risky situation without anything going wrong. Memorability is how easy it is for you to remember or imagine something going wrong. Memorable risks are the ones that linger in our minds.

Personal experience is of course a powerful source of memorability. But so is media content – not just news, but also fiction. What makes genetically modified organisms (GMOs) memorable, for example? It’s mostly science fiction, especially science fiction movies. Virtually everyone has learned that if there are scientists splicing genes early on in the movie, there will be monsters rampaging by the halfway point.

Signals and symbols are also important sources of memorability. Odor, for example, is a very unreliable measure of risk; toxic chemicals may not smell, and smelly chemicals may not be toxic. But odors are exceptionally memorable signals – both pleasant odors and unpleasant ones. And human beings are hard-wired to respond with alarm to an unpleasant odor.

Or consider this example of a memorable symbol. As part of the cleanup of a former industrial site, the site owner removed contaminated soil from neighbors’ yards. All the soil was consolidated on the site itself, to await final disposal when a remedy was chosen. Waste cleanups being what they are, more than a decade passed without a final remedy. And the 30-foot-high mini-mountain of contaminated soil, covered with a black plastic tarpaulin, became a vivid ongoing symbol of the situation – visible from neighbors’ windows, always in their face as they went about their business. Most neighbors came to understand that even though the “high-haz pile” was an eyesore, in hazard terms it was just the tip of the iceberg. And they understood that any remedy would leave the site flat; the pile would be gone. Even so, as the debate over capping versus treatment versus offsite disposal dragged on, hauling away the high-haz pile remained important to many, even among those who were reluctantly willing to see the rest of the contamination capped on site. It made no technical, regulatory, or economic sense, but it made perfect symbolic sense.

Shrewd activists choose their fights in part for symbolic potential. A wonderful example is the 1989 controversy in the U.S. over Alar, an additive that used to help apples stay on the tree longer, until the Natural Resources Defense Council led a battle to get it banned – in the process persuading Congress to stiffen regulation of pesticides and agricultural additives generally. A lot of the memorability of Alar came from symbolism: the apple as a symbol of innocence and the poisoned apple as a symbol of betrayed innocence. From Adam and Eve to Snow White, we have vivid images of poisoned apples. Cartoonists used the poisoned apple imagery to symbolize the Alar controversy. More importantly, the poisoned apple imagery resonated in the minds of audience members, greatly amplifying their sense of the seriousness of the Alar threat. Imagine that Alar, instead of being an additive on apples, were something you put in pork. I think the NRDC is too smart to go after an additive in pork, but suppose it had. The media and public would not have been especially interested. Why? Nobody has any vision of pork getting any dirtier than it already is. But apples!

High memorability is particularly powerful when it is paired with low familiarity: “I don’t understand what you do, but I remember the night it all went haywire!” Memorability also feeds on itself, often by way of media coverage. A memorable event gets a lot of coverage and arouses a lot of public outrage. Increased outrage justifies more media coverage; that makes the risk more memorable; that leads to more outrage, more coverage, more memorability, more outrage, and on and on in an upward spiral.

If you’re trying to arouse or increase people’s outrage, memorability is your ally, and you should do everything you can to keep reminding your audience of the things – the events, news stories, movies, odors, whatever – that make the risk memorable.

What if you’re trying to reduce people’s outrage? Only time will make that event/story/movie/odor less memorable. All you can do to help move the process along is to keep acknowledging it. It is natural to prefer not to talk about it, of course. But your silence just makes it all the more vivid in everyone else’s mind, and all the more powerful as ammunition for your opponents. Nor is it sufficient for you to talk about it once or twice. That might be enough for an audience that’s barely aware of it in the first place: Get it on the table so no one can accuse you of hiding it, then move on to something more positive. This is the conventional advice of public relations professionals, and it makes sense for an inattentive mass audience. But not for stakeholders who see the situation in a whole new light because of this memorable event/story/movie/odor. Once or twice won't do the job. You have to wallow in it, continuing to talk about it not until you're sick of it (you were sick of it from the outset) but until your stakeholders are sick of hearing about it.

There is a chemical plant in Canada that had an accident many years ago, the plume of which came to be known in the media as “the Blob.” Journalists soon got in the habit of referring to the Blob any time that plant’s environmental problems made the news. The plant manager decided to put a stop to what he considered unfair harping on an ancient incident, so he put the word out to all employees to avoid the subject: It will cost you your job to mention the Blob. Inevitably, the strategy backfired. The spokespeople’s unwillingness to talk about the Blob made reporters all the more interested in asking about it, giving the original accident another decade or so of life. Instead of trying to ignore the Blob, plant representatives should have been talking it to death – comparing every current emission to the Blob, endlessly discussing what the company had learned from the Blob and how committed it was to never having another.

The basic relationship between memorability and precaution-taking is as I have described: The more memorable the risk is, the more outrage people are likely to feel – and, therefore, the likelier they are to take precautions or demand that others take precautions on their behalf. If you want high outrage, you want high memorability; if you want low outrage, you want low memorability.

But like the relationship between familiarity and precaution-taking, the relationship between memorability and precaution-taking can sometimes get complicated.

For one thing, too much outrage can be too much of a good thing, from the perspective of precaution-taking. People who get too scared may go into denial or paralysis – like a child so frightened of tooth decay that he avoids brushing his teeth in order not to have to think about it, or a woman so frightened of breast cancer that she avoids checking for lumps for the same reason. It’s hard to provoke that much fear; in precaution advocacy, as a rule, the more outrage the better. But not always.

Also, people can get desensitized to memorably frightening stimuli – and then it takes scarier and scarier stimuli to keep them in a cautious frame of mind.

But the most important complication is this: Familiarity with the bad outcome has to feel genuinely bad in order to provoke more outrage and more precaution-taking. Remember that nobody died at Three Mile Island. For most people, nonetheless, the lesson of TMI was that many, many things went wrong there, proving that nuclear power isn’t safe. But for nuclear power supporters, the lesson of TMI was that U.S. nuclear plants are so safe that even when many, many things go wrong, nobody dies.

The lesson of a near-miss is always ambiguous. Does it mean that “defense in depth” is working and a serious accident is unlikely? Or does it mean that we came much too close to disaster and need to beef up our precautions?

Research dating back to the 1980s has consistently found that minor accidents and near-misses have a bigger “signal effect” when the relevant risk is unfamiliar (especially if it’s also highly dreaded). If something goes wrong with an unfamiliar risk, we’re likely to take it to heart, to see it as vivid evidence that the risk is unacceptable. If something goes wrong with a familiar risk, on the other hand, we tend to shrug it off, seeing it as an exception rather than as a warning. So a near-miss in a factory may terrify neighbors while leaving employees blithely unworried.

This may help explain why corporate communicators routinely play down the significance of a near-miss in what they say to the media and the neighborhood (“no one was ever in danger”)), while the company’s safety people play up its significance in what they say to employees (“don’t ever get this close again!”).

Best practice for near-miss risk communication is to offer both interpretations to all audiences: “Any violation of our safety protocols is a reason to worry. Yes, the backup systems worked the way they were designed to work, so nothing bad happened. But we got closer to a serious accident than we want to get. Relying too much on backup systems is a recipe for disaster.”

The lesson of living through a dangerous situation – a hurricane, for example – is similarly ambiguous. Most veterans of major hurricanes take hurricanes seriously; experienced Floridians routinely board up their windows and evacuate their homes, sometimes several times in the same season. But some veterans of serious hurricanes become overconfident instead: “I lived through Andrew and Wilma and I’ll live through this one too.” As Superstorm Sandy approached New York City in late October 2012, too many residents of low-lying, flood-prone parts of the city refused to obey evacuation orders, pointing out that they had survived Irene a year earlier without difficulty.

So it’s important to tell people who evacuated and whose homes were unscathed that they were nonetheless smart to get out, and that they should evacuate again the next time there’s a hurricane headed their way. And it’s important to tell people who didn’t evacuate and whose homes were unscathed that they got lucky this time but shouldn’t push their luck – just listen to what happened to so-and-so who got cocky after Irene and nearly died in Sandy.

Familiar turned strange

The familiar-turned-strange is the stuff of nightmares and horror films. But it often fuels risk controversies as well. This is, in fact, the worst sort of unfamiliarity: You thought you were familiar with the situation, when suddenly it went weird on you. Although familiarity does help keep outrage low, there is always the possibility of this sort of boomerang effect: If the outrage manages to crash through the familiarity bulwark (to mix the metaphor a little), it is all the worse for having corrupted what had felt safe.

The example I gave earlier in this column: People resist worrying about risks in the most familiar venue of all, their own homes. That’s why it’s hard to arouse sufficient outrage about radon, carbon monoxide, home fires, home accidents, etc. But suppose you learn that your home has been contaminated by dangerous emissions from a nearby factory, or by toxic chemicals used by an unscrupulous or incompetent contractor you brought in to do some repair work. Now the fact that it’s your home – your home! – makes the outrage all the worse.

People whose homes have been robbed often end up selling and moving elsewhere. Especially if they really loved their house or apartment, the comfortable feeling it gave them may not be retrievable. (Some people respond the same way to illness: My body has betrayed me.)

Similarly, we have trouble believing a familiar and much-loved consumer product could be dangerous – but once we decide it really is, we skip right from underreacting to overreacting. “My God,” an Australian colleague joked, “even Vegemite!” And employees who get used to the manufacturing processes they work with tend to see any change as a threat. The new solvent may actually be safer than the old one, but it smells different – and unless it’s introduced with a thorough familiarity-building campaign, it will therefore generate more outrage. These are all everyday examples of the “familiarity betrayed” boomerang effect.

Or think about technologies whose presence is highly familiar but whose actual workings we find totally mysterious. For me it’s my computer. I use it constantly and depend on it totally. But if it malfunctions I am totally at a loss. Brought face-to-face with my own ignorance, dependence, and vulnerability, I feel betrayed and incredibly anxious. Watching a hardware expert muck around in my computer’s innards is like undergoing surgery without anesthesia.

Copyright © 2012 by Peter M. Sandman

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