Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci recently tweeted a comparison of risk stats.
America, want to feel secure? Start deporting toddlers, or stop lightning, or fucking abolish guns. pic.twitter.com/RWwVC35mEG
— Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci) January 29, 2017
While these statistics are surely correct, they are equally unlikely to have much impact on the public perception of risk. Peter Sandman is an expert in the field of risk communication. One of his contributions is the quasi-formula, “Risk = Hazard + Outrage.” Pigliucci’s statistics are an example of what Sandman calls data about the “hazard.” But there is another set of considerations, what he calls “outrage,” which play a much bigger role in how most people think about risk.
Sandman defines “outrage” as “how upsetting the risky situation is.” He explains as follows:
When I invented the label “outrage” some 30 years ago I had in mind the sort of righteous anger people feel when they suspect a nearby factory is belching carcinogens into the air. But as I use the concept now, it applies to fear-arousing situations as much as anger-arousing situations. High-outrage risks are the risks that tend to upset people, independent of how much harm they’re actually likely to do.
A risk that is voluntary, for example, provokes less outrage than one that’s coerced. A fair risk is less outrage-provoking than an unfair one. Among the other outrage factors :
- Familiar versus exotic
- Not memorable versus memorable
- Not dreaded versus dreaded
- Individually controlled versus controlled by others
- Trustworthy sources versus untrustworthy sources
- Responsive process versus unresponsive process
Not only does Sandman’s hazard vs. outrage distinction explain why appeals to comparative risk statistics don’t work, it is actually constructive because it help guides the conversation. Most of Sandman’s website is, in fact, an extended lesson in how to use an awareness of his “outrage factors” to get people’s outrage to better align with the hazard.
I’m not going to spell out how Sandman’s outrage factors play into the debate over Trump’s Executive Order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. But I predict that, if you apply his techniques, you can both predict the talking points from Trump’s supporters as well as identify areas where Trump’s critics could do a much better job.