Tag Archives: risk

Typography, Pronunciation and Cognitive Fluency

How easy some­thing is to read and under­stand sig­ni­fic­antly affects how we per­ceive it in terms of its risk, beauty, dif­fi­culty, cred­ib­il­ity and truth­ful­ness. Factors that influ­ence this cog­nit­ive flu­ency include typo­graphy (typeface choice, con­trast, etc.), ease of pro­nun­ci­ation, famili­ar­ity and how much the words rhyme.

The cov­er story of this month’s The Psy­cho­lo­gist is an extens­ive study of this phe­nomen­on, look­ing at how cog­nit­ive flu­ency affects our judge­ments and per­cep­tions.

This excerpt illus­trates the effect, whereby a set of phys­ic­al exer­cises designed to be incor­por­ated in your daily routine were described (emphas­is mine):

When they were presen­ted in an easy-to-read print font (Arial), read­ers assumed that the exer­cise would take 8.2 minutes to com­plete; but when they were presen­ted in a dif­fi­cult-to-read print font, read­ers assumed it would take nearly twice as long, a full 15.1 minutes. They also thought that the exer­cise would flow quite nat­ur­ally when the font was easy to read, but feared that it would drag on when it was dif­fi­cult to read. Giv­en these impres­sions, they were more will­ing to incor­por­ate the exer­cise into their daily routine when it was presen­ted in an easy-to-read font. Quite clearly, people mis­read the dif­fi­culty of read­ing the exer­cise instruc­tions as indic­at­ive of the dif­fi­culty involved in doing the exer­cise. If we want people to adopt a new beha­viour, it is there­fore import­ant that instruc­tions are not only semantic­ally clear and easy to fol­low, but also visu­ally easy to read – or else the beha­viour may seem unduly demand­ing.

Oth­er find­ings from the vari­ous stud­ies men­tioned in the art­icle:

  • When a recipe is presen­ted in an eleg­ant but dif­fi­cult-to-read font, it is assumed that it requires more time and more skill than when presen­ted in an easy-to-read font. (The authors con­clude that res­taur­ants should describe dishes in dif­fi­cult-to-read fonts. They do.)
  • Print fonts influ­ence wheth­er people make decisions or defer them to a later time.
  • Food addit­ives with com­plex, dif­fi­cult-to-pro­nounce names are per­ceived as more risky.
  • Amuse­ment park rides were classed as more dan­ger­ous if they had com­plex, dif­fi­cult-to-pro­nounce names.
  • A stat­ist­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of stocks with easy-to-pro­nounce tick­ers sym­bols had high­er yields than those with dif­fi­cult-to-pro­nounce tick­er sym­bols.

Resources on the Psychology of Security and Risk

Pro­fess­or of Secur­ity Engin­eer­ing at the Com­puter Labor­at­ory, Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge, Ross Ander­son, has com­piled a com­pre­hens­ive resource page on the psy­cho­logy of risk and secur­ity. The resources them­selves are divided into sev­en sec­tion, to wit:

  • Intro­duct­ory Papers
  • Decep­tion
  • Secur­ity and Usab­il­ity
  • Social Atti­tudes to Risk
  • Beha­vi­our­al Eco­nom­ics of Secur­ity
  • Mis­cel­laneous Papers
  • Oth­er (Con­fer­ences, Websites/Blogs, Books)

From the intro­duc­tion:

A fas­cin­at­ing dia­logue is devel­op­ing between psy­cho­lo­gists and secur­ity engin­eers. At the macro scale, soci­et­al over­re­ac­tions to ter­ror­ism are foun­ded on the mis­per­cep­tion of risk and uncer­tainty, which has deep psy­cho­lo­gic­al roots. At the micro scale, more and more crimes involve decep­tion. […] Secur­ity is both a feel­ing and a real­ity, and they’re dif­fer­ent. The gap gets ever wider, and ever more import­ant.

At a deep­er level, the psy­cho­logy of secur­ity touches on fun­da­ment­al sci­entif­ic and philo­soph­ic­al prob­lems. The ‘Machiavel­lian Brain’ hypo­thes­is states that we evolved high intel­li­gence not to make bet­ter tools, but to use oth­er mon­keys bet­ter as tools: prim­ates who were bet­ter at decep­tion, or at detect­ing decep­tion in oth­ers, left more des­cend­ants. Con­flict is also deeply tied up with social psy­cho­logy and anthro­po­logy, while evol­u­tion­ary explan­a­tions for the human reli­gious impulse involve both trust and con­flict.

via Schnei­er

18 Factors of Risk Perception

In Dan Gard­ner­’s excel­lent Risk, he lists psy­cho­lo­gist Paul Slov­ic’s list of 18 factors that influ­ence how we judge the sever­ity of risk:

  1. Cata­stroph­ic Poten­tial If fatal­it­ies would occur in large num­bers in a single event – instead of in small num­bers dis­persed over time – our per­cep­tion of risk rises.
  2. Famili­ar­ity Unfa­mil­i­ar or nov­el risks make us worry more.
  3. Under­stand­ing If we believe that how an activ­ity or tech­no­logy works is not well under­stood, our sense of risk goes up.
  4. Per­son­al Con­trol If we feel the poten­tial for harm is bey­ond our con­trol – like a pas­sen­ger in an air­plane – we worry more than if we feel in con­trol – the driver of a car.
  5. Vol­un­tar­i­ness If we don’t choose to engage the risk, it feels more threat­en­ing.
  6. Chil­dren It’s much worse if kids are involved.
  7. Future Gen­er­a­tions If the risk threatens future gen­er­a­tions, we worry more.
  8. Vic­tim Iden­tity Iden­ti­fi­able vic­tims rather than stat­ist­ic­al abstrac­tions make the sense of risk rise.
  9. Dread If the effects gen­er­ate fear, the sense of risk rises.
  10. Trust If the insti­tu­tions involved are not trus­ted, risk rises.
  11. Media Atten­tion More media means more worry.
  12. Acci­dent His­tory Bad events in the past boost the sense of risk.
  13. Equity If the bene­fits go to some and the dangers to oth­ers, we raise the risk rank­ing.
  14. Bene­fits If the bene­fits of the activ­ity or tech­no­logy are not clear, it is judged to be ris­ki­er.
  15. Revers­ib­il­ity If the effects of some­thing going wrong can­not be reversed, risk rises.
  16. Per­son­al Risk If it endangers me, it’s ris­ki­er.
  17. Ori­gin Man-made risks are ris­ki­er than those of nat­ur­al ori­gin.
  18. Tim­ing More imme­di­ate threats loom lar­ger while those in the future tend to be dis­coun­ted.

For more on risk per­cep­tion, you can do worse than per­use the Wiki­pe­dia entry.

The Realistic Threat of Terrorism

To think ration­ally about risk is to think prob­ab­il­ist­ic­ally / stat­ist­ic­ally about the dangers we face.

Not­ing that “the most dan­ger­ous per­son you’re ever likely to encounter – by sev­er­al orders of mag­nitude – is the one you see in the mir­ror every morn­ing”, John Goekler offers some per­spect­ive on what risks we really should be more con­cerned about than ter­ror­ism.

A sig­ni­fic­ant major­ity of Amer­ic­ans, polls repeatedly tell us, list ter­ror­ism as one of their greatest fears. Like most of our media-inspired interests and wor­ries, how­ever, this one has little basis in real­ity. […]

As the data clearly shows, the things that genu­inely threaten us are the ones we are most likely to ignore or simply accept. (We’re stat­ist­ic­ally far more likely to be killed by a light­ning strike than by an action of Al Qaeda, for example.) The ones that we’re scared wit­less of – and spend tril­lions of increas­ingly scarce dol­lars to avert in our bound­less para­noia – are less likely to harm us than a bag of pea­nuts. (Deaths in Amer­ica due to pea­nut aller­gies aver­age 50 – 100 per year. Deaths of Amer­ic­ans due to ter­ror­ist activ­it­ies […] have aver­aged less than 15 per year since 2002.)

via Schnei­er

Children Exposed to ‘Dirt’, Healthier

From the ‘Sci­ence proves mum right’ and ‘Obvious, but still needs to be stated’ file comes the news that chil­dren who are exposed to bac­teria, vir­uses, worms, and dirt have health­i­er immune sys­tems.

Pub­lic health meas­ures like clean­ing up con­tam­in­ated water and food have saved the lives of count­less chil­dren, but they “also elim­in­ated expos­ure to many organ­isms that are prob­ably good for us.”

“Chil­dren raised in an ultraclean envir­on­ment, […] are not being exposed to organ­isms that help them devel­op appro­pri­ate immune reg­u­lat­ory cir­cuits.”

Of course there are caveats, or at least com­mon sense rules (although even the research­ers in this field are debat­ing exactly how far to take this):

“I cer­tainly recom­mend wash­ing your hands after using the bath­room, before eat­ing, after chan­ging a diaper, before and after hand­ling food,” and whenev­er they’re vis­ibly soiled, [one research­er] wrote.

Dr. Wein­stock goes even fur­ther. “Chil­dren should be allowed to go bare­foot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat.”

via Kot­tke