Many of our daily activities involve some degree of risk – to our work, finances or health. But how is risk perceived in society and how do people think about risk?
This is what Dr. Dirk Wulff and Professor Rui Matta, researchers at the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel, set out to find out. “The phenomenon of risk is of great academic interest,” explains Dirk Wulff. “But disciplines like psychology, sociology and economics define it differently.”
According to Wolfe, until now little attention has been paid to the fact that the meaning of risk can vary from person to person depending on goals and life experiences. He believes that it is important to understand how different people think about risk, in order to, for example, assess attitudes towards new technologies or social issues.
Risk connects the polar ends of the mood spectrum
To investigate this, the researchers developed a new method based on word associations and an algorithmic process that maps risk representations to different groups and individuals. The researchers took a novel approach using the snowball word association method. Participants were asked to name five things they associated with the term risk and then, in turn, five things they associated with those associations. Using this method, the researchers interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,205 people, with equal representation of men and women and different age groups.
The algorithm was used to create a semantic risk network of 36,100 associations. He identified the following components: threat, condition, investment, activity, and analysis. The semantic cluster “threat” (danger, accident, loss, etc.) was the component most prominently associated with risk, followed by “fortune” (profit, game, adventure). “Until now, research has mostly focused on the negative components of risk and ignored the fact that it can have positive associations as well,” comments Wolf.
The method is designed to capture both individual and group differences in risk perception. Psychologists have studied the differences between men and women and between different age groups. In general, women, men and people of all ages share the same thoughts about risk. However, there were some differences: a higher proportion of older people than younger people and a higher proportion of women than men associated risk more closely with threat and less with success.
Small differences between languages
The researchers also asked the question: Do people from different language regions think the same about risk? To investigate this, they compared the semantic risk network that emerged in the German survey group with the semantic risk network obtained in two other languages, Dutch and English. There were small differences in the frequency of associations. For example, in Dutch the term risk was more closely associated with threat, while in English it was associated with wealth and finance. Overall, however, the results suggest that there are some universal correlates of risk representation that transcend linguistic boundaries.
“Our research breaks new ground for how people think about risk,” says Wolf. “This could play an important role in facilitating a better understanding of how different social groups interpret risk, allowing for improved risk transfer strategies to combat social polarization.”