Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Emotion and risk communication

Midori Aoyagi's picture
Aoyagi, Midori
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Scholarly papers

This paper discusses the role of emotion when communicating to the public about issues related to radiation and nuclear power generation. The study was conducted after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the ensuing nuclear power plant accident. Using the results of focus group interviews and a public opinion survey, I analyzed the relationship between people’s understanding of the risks of radiation and their choices about purchasing potentially radiation-contaminated food. The aim of the study was to understand the current status of the public’s response to communication about the potential radiation contamination of food.
The participants of the focus groups could be categorized into five groups: 1) hot-spot residents, who live closer to the affected areas and have higher risk perception and greater knowledge; 2) refusers/rejecters, who refuse to even talk about the issues, primarily because they are afraid; 3) information sympathizers, who are sympathetic to the information provided and easily change their attitudes on the basis of the information provided; 4) information swingers, who generally do not have as much knowledge as information seekers, but can easily feel sympathy for others and can change their attitudes; and 5) information seekers, who have a high level of knowledge about radiation and other related issues, but still have not eliminated their own fear about the health effects of radiation. One of the participants of the fifth group said, “my head understands, but my heart does not.” Some participants insisted that we need to think about the benefits of radiation and nuclear power generation, not only the risks. Overall, we conclude that discussing only the scientific aspects of radiation is not sufficient to effectively communicate the risks of radiation. We also need to consider the emotional aspects of people’s responses to it.
The results of the survey showed that people in the two large urban areas studied who believed that current environmental condition would have a larger effect on future health were more likely to avoid potentially contaminated food. In addition, people in all areas who believed the nuclear accident would have greater effects on health were more likely to avoid potentially contaminated foods. People who live in large urban areas may have more food options than people who live in other areas.
In conclusion, it seems that risk communication activities generally aim to let people “know” or “understand” a specific issue, but our results show that this aim may not always be useful. Some groups of people do not understand some of these concepts and need to be exposed to broader perspectives. Communicators need to use an approach that speaks not only to the head (i.e., intellect) but also to the heart (i.e., emotions) when communicating about risk.