This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center
- Communications can be biased by the cognitive principles behind nudges, even if nudges aren’t intentionally used.
- Risk communicators should keep in mind that a message’s presentation, such as how risk information is framed, can have a strong influence on audiences that may have a negative impact on the public.
Implications for Public Relations
When developing risk communications strategies, public relations professionals should take into account how risk information is processed and whether cognitive biases will have unintended, negative consequences.
While nudges can be thought of as behavioural tools, the underlying cognitive processes that make them effective interventions should be a consideration for communicators even when they are not actively using nudges. By keeping the mind that people tend to stick with defaults and that information can be framed both positively and negatively, risk communicators can provide the public with the information they need to support decision-making in times of ambiguity and danger, without unnecessarily exposing them to greater harm, like stress and anxiety.
A “nudge” is an intervention designed to encourage a particular behaviour without coercion or limiting choices. Nudges make use of the cognitive processes responsible for decision-making and behaviour. Two common nudges are default nudges, which are based on people’s preference for default choices due to their ease, and framing, which influences perception by highlighting either the positive or negative aspects of a situation. By making a desired behaviour the default option, people are more likely to choose it. Communicators can frame information as either a gain or a loss to achieve different results, despite the actual information being exactly the same.
While defaults and framing can be applied by communicators intentionally, the same underlying principles can have unintentional impacts of communication. Researchers Murakami and Tsubokura examined risk communication through the lens of nudge theory, looking at the Fukushima nuclear disaster as a case study. They suggest that risk communication is inevitably biased by the way the way information is presented, resulting in potential unintended and underappreciated consequences. Risk communicators should recognize these effects and the role that message presentation can play on people’s attitudes and beliefs.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, some nearby cities offered personal radiation detectors to all residents, making it a default choice. While radiation detectors provided some people peace of mind, it also led to more anxiety for those who didn’t understand how to interpret the readings, creating a need to provide additional information and assistance for those individuals.
Risk information can be framed as either a gain or a loss. Following the Fukushima disaster, risks for contamination from radiation were presented as either the likelihood of being safe from contamination (gain) or the likelihood of contamination (loss). Although the information has not changed, the loss framing can lead to higher perceptions of risk and therefore greater vigilance. However, it can also lead to greater anxiety and stress.
Even when nudges are not used intentionally, the cognitive processes behind them are still at play. The authors emphasize the importance of keeping these processes in mind and focusing on maximizing public benefit. Communications should be designed to mitigate any potential harm that they have on the public, including increasing stress and anxiety which can lead to poorer mental health and sub-optimal decision-making.
Murakami, M., & Tsubokura, M. (2017). Evaluating risk communication after the Fukushima disaster based on nudge theory. Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, 29(2), 193-200. https://doi.org/10.1177/1010539517691338