When disaster hits, oftentimes it is already too late to act. That is why it is vital to prioritise early planning around increasing disaster preparedness. One way to do this is to ensure that an individual has an accurate risk perception. This influences the behaviour change that is necessary to turn learnings about disaster preparedness into action for both individuals and the broader community.
How is risk perception formed?
There are many factors that play into an individual’s assessment of risk, including the level of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability.
Having an accurate risk perception is critical because while someone could know what do to, they will not be motivated to act upon it if they do not feel like it applies to them. This is also a critical element for behaviour change.
For example, recent research has found that households did not invest in protecting their home from flooding, even when the investments were economically achievable. How can we ensure that people see their risk so that they take the necessary precautions to keep themselves, their family/friends and their property safe?
How accurate risk perception achieved
Risk perception is achieved with two key elements: personal experiences and external communication. Using these in combination can help create behaviour change around preparing for a natural disaster.
Going through a natural disaster inherently changes the way someone views future risks. The experience will prove that it is not the case that it “happens to other people, but not me.”
This can influence behaviour change, making people take precautions they didn’t take the first time.
People become so prepared that they have been seen to overestimate their future risk. A recent study in the Netherlands found that people overestimated their future risk by two-fold after experiencing a previous disaster.
Someone’s close friend or family member experiencing a disaster also increases their risk perception. Communication teams can harness this by utilising people’s survivor stories. Having relatable and empathetic spokespeople can give people who haven’t experienced a disaster a reason to take appropriate precautions in preparation for future disasters.
Although it can be a valuable tool, it is important to be sensitive when listening to these often traumatic stories. While the goal is to make people more aware of their risk, feeding horror stories will cause people to shut down and feel hopeless. Be sure to always end the conversation in a positive manner and give practical advice of what to do in preparation for the next natural disaster.
This feeds into the next influence on risk perception. Before, during and after a disaster, individuals and the broader community are given lots of information about what to do. Whether it is to download an app, warnings about not driving in flood water or keeping up to date with the weather information, all of it is important. But without a clear understanding of risk, people are less likely to act.
That is why the priority for effective communication is to clearly outline the risks and to ensure individuals and communities are keenly aware of their own risks. There are a few techniques that can increase the chances of communicating risk levels.
Steps to communicate risk levels
First, it is important to discuss the risk with the community in clear, common and understandable language. Discussing risk in a way that is related to people’s everyday lives allows for a more accurate understanding. Rather than using complicated statistics and probability, use examples about what could actually happen, such as impacts to the driving routes, access to safe places of refuge or what can be done if the power is cut.
This could also include using visual aids, such as maps, diagrams and photos. Importantly, understand your audience, also their potential barriers to language and access to information to ensure the communication techniques are effective.
Then, follow up with providing actionable steps. People will often feel more comfortable with the risks if they feel they have some control over the outcome, so provide a way for people to gain a sense of control. This will also show people the benefits of taking steps towards being prepared for natural disasters.
Risk perception is important
The goal of accurate risk perception is not to scare but to prepare people. Communicating simple steps that community members can take demonstrates the need to be prepared and that there is no need to shut down, panic and wait for someone else to act on their behalf. Combining this with personal experiences and simple language can help individuals and the broader community prepare efficiently and effectively.