A couple of days ago, Andrew, an Atomic Insights contributor pointed me to Dr. Peter Sandman, a man who built a career out of helping large organizations improve their ability to communicate about risk. I want to thank Andrew for helping me to put a name to a topic that I’ve been wanting to study – outrage management.
I’ve been searching for a way to improve our ability to calm the fears that have made investments and careers in nuclear energy more risky than they should be. In the 1980s, Dr. Sandman formulated an equation for risk.
In his formula, hazard is the classic measure that risk assessment professionals have been taught: risk = consequences x probability of occurrence. Outrage is a measure of the risk that people believe an activity entails. It is just as real and may even be more measurable than hazard even though it does not normally result in any blood, injuries or dead bodies.
After all, anyone who has engaged in an exercise in probabilistic risk assessment understands that practitioners call some of the numbers associated with computing the hazard of rare events SWAGs (silly, wild ass guesses). (Aside: Some of my distinguished friends who engage in risk assessment insist that the source of their numbers as “expert elicitation”, but I like to tease them a little. End Aside.)
In contrast, outrage is often quite visible and measurable to an accuracy of several decimal places. At its extreme, outrage can result in injuries (people being trampled by a panicked crowd trying to leave a place of perceived danger), illness, and even death. It can cause long term negative effects and entail huge economic costs.
According to Dr. Sandman, outrage management is the type of risk communications effort that is needed when the risk of an activity is dominated by outrage. Even if there are rarely, if ever, any dead bodies, –indicative of a low level of hazard — nuclear energy often tops the lists of risky activities in polls that ask people to rank a set of activities.
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