The Risk-Monger

Would you take a risk with someone you did not trust? If you don’t trust your doctor, would you readily take the medication prescribed? If you don’t trust your girlfriend, would you marry her? If you don’t trust the food company (supply chain, retailer, restaurant …), would you happily eat the food? If you don’t trust the solvency of the bank, would you leave your money in it? At the heart of risk taking (implying both risk perception and risk management) is trust. So what is trust and why do we pay so little attention to it?

Trust is a human commodity to be developed, expressed, exchanged and exploited. As an emotional reaction, trust is outside of the domain of reason or common sense – it is felt in an inarticulate but very rich manner (although we try to rationalise it a posteriori). Children, at a very young age, build bonds on the basis of trust relations and events. A child might enjoy being tossed high in the air by a parent, but not by a stranger or a distant relative. (I sometimes wonder anecdotally if those who do not trust anyone or anything were at some point dropped as babies.)

Trust is also extremely personal and reflective of past experiences and events. People who have been bitten by dogs often stop in their tracks when confronted by an unleashed hound while others would stop and pet the animal. Those who have had food poisoning may be more particular about the quality of their alimentation while ravenous people like myself can rip through a meal without hesitation or even stopping to read the labels. People who have been lied to or abused by others might have different personal issues than those fortunate enough to have had happy, uneventful relationships.

So while we cannot define trust (and why some individuals are more open to risk taking than others), we can indeed examine certain “elements of trust” which might go far in helping to explain why some people are more open to risk taking than others; why some respect the role of authorities in managing risks while others are compelled to challenge them; why some demand a world without risks and others look at the opportunities risk taking provides. As the Risk-Monger has frequently argued, we are not all precaution-obsessed and perhaps this brief analysis of trust might shed some further light on the limits of precaution as a policy tool.


The first element of trust to consider is familiarity. When something is new and too complex to understand or perceive (think nanotechnology or biotech), we might fear taking such risks (especially if they are perceived as unnecessary or providing little added benefit). Once we become more acquainted with the technology, we would likely fear it less. If the technology or the risk works itself into the societal fabric or narrative, the risk taking becomes ubiquitous (examples can include cell phone use, Botox, smoking, alcohol consumption, fast driving …). What is interesting here is the “justified irrationality” that familiarity implies. For example, a heavy smoker will think nothing of a few extra cigarettes during the day, but could cringe at the risk of trace amounts of dioxin in the food supply or migrating from packaging. We are inclined to take more serious risks we are familiar with than to take smaller risks we are not used to (I regularly stick cotton swabs in my ears even though the product packaging warns me very clearly to keep it far from my ear canal).


The next element of trust is kinship – the bonds we form with others who are like us in heritage, thought process or activity. Groups (and group mentality) reinforce similarities and lessen or enhance any risk perceptions we might have. Someone might become more easily afraid of pesticide residues within a group of expressive organic food activists who all share similar stories about the food risks. With social media and the personalisation (RSSing) of information, justified irrationalities proliferate more widely and rapidly (think of how dangerous Obamacare is perceived to be to American Republicans!). The more we hear something in our community, and the more our friends repeat it, the more we trust the information as factual (think the story of fighting climate change and our growing impatience with authorities who do not act quickly). The Risk-Monger has often warned about the political dangers of “commonality”. Indeed, social networking has grown as the most effective trust-building tool: we trust our friends (that is about all we trust any more) so if our friends like a movie or a product or raise alarms about a practice or technology, we will more readily agree. Twitter and Facebook have enhanced the power of environmental NGOs to spread their ideology at a more personal level (gaining more trust with fewer facts).

Natural v Synthetic

We trust things that are natural (or perceived as traditional) and fear things perceived to be man-made or synthetic. French activists seem to be terrified of GMOs but have no problems consuming unpasteurised (traditional) cheeses that kill dozens every year. We will drink coffee throughout the day even though, of the thousand plus (natural) chemicals in that cupper, we have only tested a few dozen (of which the majority have been found to be carcinogenic to rats); even though there are more toxins in a single cup of coffee than you would find in the pesticide residues of an entire year of fruit and vegetable consumption. There is no logic, no rationality here – we trust nature (and we trust those who defend nature).


Despite all of the reassuring data, why do so many of us feel afraid when we fly? On top of the catastrophic nature of a crash, we surrender control (agency) when we strap ourselves into an airplane and are asked to place our trust in a stranger. Agency is perhaps the strongest element of trust. Today policymakers try to legitimise themselves by consulting and involving the population in the decision-making process. Even if we have no relevant expertise, we expect to participate today in public risk management and do not trust decisions that are made “not in our name”. This is a bit of a one-way train wreck: Asking non-experts to pass judgement on issues they do not understand and can easily be made afraid of, and then have authorities they do not trust implement these decisions, skews the process heavily towards precautionary decisions. So despite the rantings of the European Environment Agency that the precautionary principle will restore trust in science, we can see that it is built on, and fosters, mistrust.

These elements point then to certain trends in trust today, and it does not bode well for risk management. We have less trust in our leaders and authorities today as we have lost the capacity for “followship”. The participatory decision-making approach was built on attempting to legitimise authority by transferring leadership to the collective. We have no trust in business or industry, not just because of the profit motive, but because recent events have highlighted the lack of control and kinship in commerce. I railed at how the chemical industry tried to rebuild trust outside of the supply chain and I have serious concerns about whether the banking industry is even aware of how badly damaged their trust deficit has become (the old adage: Trust is gained by the inch and lost by the foot). Scientists are losing public trust (that white-coat comfort) as public disagreements on issues like climate change expose scientists as political and motivated by other elements than discovery. Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace have used this growing trust deficit to their benefit, encouraging fear and mistrust for their own political objectives. They have a trust surplus and they regularly exploit it knowing full well that the justified irrationality of their arguments need not depend on facts or evidence.

Trust is also a tool easily manipulated (the US election process is a wonderful demonstration of this). With trust comes influence, and in today’s media-obsessed world, influence is power. The Risk-Monger then needs to find a way to get more people to trust him.

The final contribution of my summer back-to-basics series will look at how risk communication brings out the negativity in us.


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