Scandinavian Working Papers in Economics
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The Economic Research Institute, Stockholm School of Economics SSE/EFI Working Paper Series in Business Administration

No 2006:10:
Myths of the Psychometric Paradigm and how they can misinform risk communication

Lennart Sjöberg ()

Abstract: Extensive research on risk perception has led to a received view (the psychometric model or paradigm), which stresses that members of the public react negatively to technology whenever it (a) is new, (b) causes “dread”, and (c) there is low trust in experts and organizations concerned with managing the risk. Experts, on the other hand, are said to be “objective” and unaffected by “subjective” factors. However, this research has used the same - misleading - methodology in almost all cases and the fact that some of the results have been “many times replicated” is therefore irrelevant to its validity. Analyses of the psychometric model have repeatedly shown that it leaves most of the variance of perceived risk and policy attitudes unexplained. A closer look at several decades' work shows that (a) novelty carries little weight in risk perception, (b) “dread” has not been measured in an appropriate manner and is little powerful, and (c) social trust has a marginal influence as compared to trust in science, epistemological trust. Furthermore, antagonistic attitudes are common and important. Experts exhibit the same structure and level of risk perception as the public; unless they assess risks, they are responsible for managing. In that case, they judge the risk to be drastically smaller than the public does. The importance of epistemic as opposed to social trust stresses the need to take peoples’ concern seriously, not only establish good social relations. The finding that antagonistic attitudes are common and important suggests that being “respectful of people’s feelings” will not be sufficient to establish trust. Failures of risk communication can probably be explained to some extent by the fact that practitioners rely on the misleading notions of the psychometric paradigm.

Keywords: risk perception; risk communication; psychometric paradigm; (follow links to similar papers)

18 pages, October 15, 2006

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