Outrage Management and Precaution Advocacy [en]

[fr] Interview très intéressant concernant la communication des risques. Un risque c'est un danger objectif, et aussi une réaction subjective, "outrage". Les deux ne sont pas liés. On voit des réactions très émotionnelles à des risques très bas, et des risques hauts qui n'inquiètent pas du tout les gens. Il s'agit donc de trouver des techniques pour "calmer" l'inquiétude excessive pour des dangers mineurs (= "outrage management") et augmenter le sentiment de danger pour les dangers qui n'inquiètent pas assez (= "precaution advocacy"). Fascinant.

Listening to an old episode of On The Media, I came upon this super interesting segment about risk communication (titled Terrorists vs. Bathtubs — listen to the piece, it’s just over 10 minutes, or read the transcript).

Brooke interviews Peter Sandman, expert in the field. He presents risk as a combination of outrage and hazard. Hazard is the real danger and outrage is how upsetting it is. There is no correlation between the two, and that is what makes risk communication tricky.

When I was studying chemistry I had a class on risk management. It was one of my most interesting classes, and had I stayed in chemistry, I might have delved deeper into the subject. What I learned (and it changed the way I view the world) is that a risk is a product of a probability (that something will happen) and of the amount of damage if it happens. Peter Sandman adds another dimension to the equation: the human reaction.

Outrage management is what you do when you’re faced with people who are excessively angry or frightened about something that is not that dangerous. Precaution advocacy is what you do to make people more worried/scared about something they are not concerned about enough.

Trust and control play a big role on how much outrage a risk will generate. If I trust you and you say it’s no big deal, I’ll calm down. If I control the risk I’ll be less outraged than when I don’t (quoting from the interview transcript):

Trust is a biggie. If I trust you, I’m going to find the risk that you are exposing me to much more acceptable than if I don’t trust you. If you trust the government to tell you that surveillance is no big deal and they’re gonna do it responsibly, you’re gonna have a different response than if you think the government is not to be trusted. So trust is one.

Control is one. If it’s under my control I’m going to be less upset than if it’s under your control. Memorability goes in the other direction. If you can remember awful things happening or you can imagine awful things happening, that makes the risk more memorable, that makes it more a source of outrage. But what’s key here is that outrage has a much higher correlation with perceived hazard than hazard has with perceived hazard.

Peter gives an example of how to manage outrage:

Let’s take a situation that most of your listeners are going to think is genuinely low hazard, like vaccination. But if you’re the CDC or you’re some public health department and you’re dealing with a parent who’s anxious, it’s not mostly telling the parent that it’s foolish to worry about vaccine. It’s much more listening to the parent’s concerns. It’s partly acknowledging that there is some truth to those concerns. The strongest argument in the toolkit of opponents of vaccination is the dishonesty of vaccination proponents about the very small risk that’s real. If you’re 98 percent right and pretending to be 100 percent right, then the advocates of that two percent nail you!

And here’s an example of the opposite, precaution advocacy, when you actually try and increase outrage to encourage people into safer behaviours:

One of the things that demonstrably works well with seatbelts and well generally in precaution advocacy is scaring people. So those scary drivers at movies that, you know, they make teenagers watch actually do a lot of good. Role models work.

One of the most effective things in persuading people to get vaccinated against the swine flu pandemic a couple of years ago was when President Obama got his children vaccinated. One  example of a strategy that’s very powerful is if you can get people to do a behavior that doesn’t necessarily make sense to them, because they don’t have the attitude to support that behavior, once they have done the behavior, they begin to wonder why they did it. This is called cognitive dissonance. And, and cognitive dissonance is a very strong motivator for learning things that you wouldn’t otherwise want to learn.

A nice example of this is most people who have ever tried to ask people to sign petitions notice that more people sign your petition and then read your literature than read your literature and then signed your petition. They sign the petition to be courteous, and then the act of signing the petition makes them wonder, what did I do, what did I sign? Then they read the literature, in order to teach themselves that what they did made sense and, and to develop an attitude that supports the behavior.

The conversation goes on to talk about the NSA and surveillance and terrorism (this is not long after the Snowden leaks), as well as the narrative around fracking, which Peter has since written about on his website. (His website is full of good stuff, by the way, including musings on his legacy, as he’s pretty much semi-retired.)

What I was really interested in though was this concept of outrage, and how trying to calm outraged people down with facts doesn’t really work.

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Outraged and Furious: First Encounter With a Full-Body Scanner (in the UK) [en]

[fr] Furax: je découvre qu'au Royaume-Uni aussi, il faut passer par un de ces scanners-qui-vous-déshabillent. Et je découvre ça coincée comme un rat dans une cage en verre dont la seule sortie passe par un de ces scanners. Et contrairement aux USA, pas d'autre option: c'est ça ou je ne vole pas.

I am furious and outraged like I have rarely been.

You’ve heard about the full-body scanners they’ve been using in the US, right? And the “enhanced pat-downs” you go through if you opt out of the scanners? Thought that was bad?

I did.

You probably already know — if you know me a bit — that all the security theatre around flying angers me no end. Somebody tries to smuggle explosives on plane in their shoes? Let’s make everyone take off their shoes. Liquid explosives? Great, let’s put restrictions on liquids in carry-on luggage. Explosive underwear? Even better, let’s ask everyone to get naked. You know.

I won’t get into the details of why this is a complete pile of horseshit, others like Bruce Schneier have done it (and are still doing it) way better than me.

Now, if you’ve been flying to or from the US, chances are that you’ve wondered what you thought about them. Do they invade your privacy? your intimacy? are the “enhanced” pat-downs you can choose instead something you’re willing to subject yourself to? are they as safe as we’re told?

And, like us all when we travel and have to jump through hoops, you’ve probably reached some kind of agreement with yourself about the price you were willing to pay (in terms of hassle or loss of freedom or invasion of privacy or possible unproven health risks) to benefit from the comforts of air travel.

Or, maybe, if you don’t have any intention of flying to the US in the near future, you’ve put off that particular decision until you really have to make it.

I know I did.

Actually, I have taken the US off my list of “places I’m going to fly to” — unless I have a very good reason to change my mind.

Yes, because of the bloody scanners.

I’d actually pretty much made up my mind that before going through the “enhanced security theatre”, I would rather get to the US by road, flying first to Canada. Or something like that. But having no immediate plans to go to the US, I didn’t give it that much thought.

Now, back to why I’m writing this in Manchester airport departure lounge, having used up a pack of hankies because I feel so outraged that I don’t know what to do with myself and can’t stop crying. (Writing is helping, though, so now I just look like a mess but I’m not dripping a puddle on the floor anymore.)

I’m on my way back home, having visited my grandparents as I regularly do. I know the security theatre drill: liquids separate, take out the laptop, make sure I don’t pack too many cables, finish my water before going through security, remove extra and potentially beeping clothing before going through the metal detectors, and prepare to be quickly frisked because the darn things are so sensitive that anything can set them off. (Except in Geneva airport, where I can safely go through with clothing that will beep anywhere else.)

Well, not this time.

This time I went through the detector, which beeped, and I ended up trapped like a rat in a glass room — only way out through a full-body scanner.

I wasn’t prepared for this.

I didn’t even know they were used outside the US, or for travelers going to tame places like Switzerland from the UK.

I had no clue I should also have been thinking about whether I wanted to continue going to the UK by air (actually: coming back from the UK), or if I preferred to switch to the Eurostar.

I called out to the guy who was making the people before me go through, expressed my surprise at finding the scanner there, and asked what the other option was. He told me there was no other option, that once I had been selected for search, it was that — or don’t fly.

I exclaimed that I hadn’t had time to think about this, and he told me to “take my time” — but that was before I’d realized they were not giving me any other options.

He quickly called his superior who stepped into the box with me and started telling me it was safe, necessary, would be quickly over, etc. I tried explaining why I didn’t want to go through but we were clearly in a “dialogue de sourds”, and I started getting pretty upset (understand: crying from anger — I tend to do that, it’s really annoying).

I don’t know how long I stayed stuck there (at least 10 minutes I’d say), but it was pretty clear that I had no other option but to go through — unless I wanted to give up on my flight (yeah, sure).

I gave in, told the guy I was furious, refused his offer to give me documentation, picked up my stuff (my shiny new MacBook Air had been lying in an open tray in front of everybody during all that time) and sat down to continue having my meltdown on my own.

So, what went so wrong here?

Clearly, the fact that I discovered the existence of full-body scanners in Manchester Airport while I was trapped like a rat in a glass cage and pretty much forced to go through one.

That put me in the unenviable situation of having only a few minutes to make a difficult “ethical” decision that I’d been putting off because I wasn’t expecting to have to face this kind of situation: do I cave in to security theatre and fly, or do I refuse, and pay the price by not being able to board my flight?

I hadn’t even decided, with the US scenario, if I preferred to go through the scanner or submit to an invasive pat-down.

Also, although the two security staff I interacted with were very kind and polite, it would probably have helped if the guy in the box had actually been able to hear what I had to say and sympathize (maybe that’s too strong a word).

Instead, he insisted on telling me I was wrong, that this was necessary, that it was for my safety, that it wasn’t dangerous and would only take a few seconds, that he could give me all sorts of documentation to explain this to me.

For somebody who has read a lot on the topic of airport security (even if I haven’t written that much about it, except for rants like this one when things get too frustrating), it really didn’t help to have him talk to me as if I was just a scared uninformed passenger. I mean, he even told me that they hadn’t had any problems coming out of Manchester (regarding security), and so that they must be doing something right. I hope all of my readers can spot the flawed logic there. It doesn’t mean anything.

Wishful thinking probably, but I think that faced with somebody who would have said “I agree, all this security is probably overkill, I’m unfortunately as stuck with regulations here as you are, and I’m really sorry you didn’t know about this beforehand” — it would have helped more than pressuring me by saying that if I wanted to fly I had to go through and that I was making a fuss for nothing.

Time to buy some of that scanner-proof underwear, methinks.

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