Lay Risk Management
- Erik LöfmarckErik LöfmarckDepartment of Sociology, Örebro University
How do individuals relate to risk in everyday life? Poorly, judging by the very influential works within psychology that focus upon the heuristics and biases inherent to lay responses to risk and uncertainty. The point of departure for such research is that risks are calculable, and, as lay responses often under- or overestimate statistical probabilities, they are more or less irrational. This approach has been criticized for failing to appreciate that risks are managed in relation to a multitude of other values and needs, which are often difficult to calculate instrumentally. Thus, real-life risk management is far too complex to allow simple categorizations of rational or irrational.
A developing strand of research within sociology and other disciplines concerned with sociocultural aspects transcends the rational/irrational dichotomy when theorizing risk management in everyday life. The realization that factors such as emotion, trust, scientific knowledge, and intuition are functional and inseparable parts of lay risk management have been differently conceptualized: as, for example, bricolage, in-between strategies, and emotion-risk assemblage. The common task of this strand is trying to account for the complexity and social embeddedness of lay risk management, often by probing deep into the life-world using qualitative methods. Lay risk management is structured by the need to “get on” with life, while at the same time being surrounded by sometimes challenging risk messages.
This perspective on risk and everyday life thus holds potentially important lessons for risk communicators. For risk communication to be effective, it needs to understand the complexity of lay risk management and the interpretative resources that are available to people in their lifeworld. It needs to connect to and be made compatible with those resources, and it needs to leave room for agency so that people can get on with their lives while at the same time incorporating the risk message. It also becomes important to understand and acknowledge the meaning people attribute to various practices and how this is related to self-identity. When this is not the case, risk messages will likely be ignored or substantially modified. In essence, communicating risk requires groundwork to figure out how and why people relate to the risks in question in their specific context.