Ropeik: Face fear first, then the facts

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It is more likely that you will die walking in the next 12 months than be a victim of non-domestic aggravated assault in Worcester.

According to 2008 actuarial data compiled by the National Safety Council, the odds of dying from walking in a single year are 1 in 54,538. In a report to the City Council on Tuesday, Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme wrote, “There is a .0014 percent chance of being the victim of a non-domestic related aggravated assault.” In other words, 1 in 72,000.

Why, then, do many people feel on edge this year with both the number of shootings (20) and shooting victims (27) greater than last year and the summer marred by a series of high-profile shootings?

David Ropeik

David Ropeik

David Ropeik is a consultant in risk communication, instructor at Harvard, and author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”

The numbers are objective measures, he says, “but the perception of risk is subjective, an emotional matter of how the facts feel, not just a coldly objective assessment of the probabilistic facts themselves.”

Not only can an objective stating of probability do little good, Ropeik says. It can also be harmful if not presented properly.

Related: Read our editorial on how perspective may change the narrative of the city’s violent summer.

“The problem in pointing out how statistically low the risk is, is that such a message implies that the speaker is telling the audience to calm down … telling them how they should feel,” Ropeik wrote in an email interview with the Sun. “That subconsciously damages trust in the speaker … and trust in the officials we count on to protect us matters a lot to how safe we feel.

“The statistical probability of a risk has little to do with the nature of how scary the numbers feel; it’s scary to think of being caught powerless, out of control. (Which is why people are afraid of being shot by guns, for the feeling of control.),” he said. “It’s frightening to think of the pain of being shot. Those characteristics help make the risk feel scarier to people in Worcester, even if the statistical risk is low.

“So does high awareness of the shootings via the news media, which disproportionately magnifies what is on the public’s ‘risk radar screen,’ heightening the emotion. This is the phenomenon Roger Kasperson (of Clark University) has called the Social Amplification of Risk; when the psychological characteristics of a risk, and the way word of the risk spreads, help create perceptions that lead to behaviors that are risky all by themselves. It’s more likely people in Worcester will be harmed by fear than by being shot.”

“It’s more likely people in Worcester will be harmed by fear than by being shot.”

Ropeik continued: “Stress, from worrying too much (for more than a week or two) raises blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the risk of cardiovascular damage; weakens the immune system and increases the likelihood or severity of infectious disease; suppresses memory and fertility; and increases the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes and clinical depression. People may also be putting themselves at unnecessary risk driving a lot of extra miles to avoid a neighborhood (or city) they think is dangerous.”

The best strategy for calming fears, according to Ropeik, is to first acknowledge them, then describe what’s being done to combat the problem, “and then they can remind folks how unlikely the risk of being shot actually is. Acknowledging people’s feelings first builds trust and increases the influence of the facts they have.”

Indeed, this was the tact taken at Thursday night’s Neighborhood Safety Meeting at the Worcester Senior Center. And it appeared to work.

To read more about David Ropeik, go to or follow him on Twitter @dropeik.

The Sun attempted to contact Dr. Kasperson, but he was not available for an interview.

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