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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Linking prescriptive and descriptive risk communication approaches for risk management and decision making Arvai, Joseph Louis


The objective of risk communication is to improve peoples' ability to make informed decisions in light of technological risks and their associated benefits. In order to make higher quality decisions about complex risk problems, risk communication should include two important process-oriented components: detailed information about the risk and a decision structure that helps people make a difficult choice. The research presented in this thesis shows that it is possible to enhance the quality of decision making processes for risk management by combining themes from risk communication with the prescriptive decision process of value-focused thinking. I hypothesized that participating in value-focused risk communication would lead to 'higher quality' and more defensible decisions and decision making processes as measured by, among other criteria, peoples' ability to consider in depth a wide variety of decision-relevant issues in addition to addressing their values and concerns when selecting risk management options. The results of the research presented in this thesis provide support for the hypotheses. A second experiment presented in this thesis tested the idea that public participation in prescriptive risk communication can lead to more widely accepted risk-policy decisions. It was hypothesized that descriptive risk communication outputs that cast risk policies as the product of a prescriptive, participatory decision process would lead to a higher degree of support for the resulting decisions. The results of this experiment provided support for this hypothesis but also showed that recipients tended to be more satisfied with the decision making process than they were with the outcome of the decision itself. This thesis also discusses process-based evaluations of risk communication as an alternative to the more common method of evaluating people's reactions to the outcomes of the communication program. Adopting process-based evaluations deemphasizes the supposed requirement for researchers to correlate an individual or group's behavior with comprehension or agreement with agency communications. Five criteria for carrying out such an evaluation are discussed. The contributions of this thesis and the research described in it are two-fold. First, it is the suggestion that all examples of risk communication share a common objective. That is, to foster decision aiding at some level, whether it be for complex and controversial decisions or for smaller-scale, individual decisions. As a result, when designing and evaluating risk communication efforts, researchers and practitioners should be mindful about whether or not what their risk communication products meet this objective. Secondly, and along these same lines, risk communication has more to do with defensible decision making thank it does with an expert-driven process for "risk education."

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