Outrage and Reality

My op-ed published in The News on 7 November 2012:

Outrage and Reality

Awais Aftab

Dr Peter Sandman is a risk communication specialist and a prominent international consultant with regards to outrage and crisis management. He is well known for his conceptual formula ‘Risk = Hazard + Outrage’ and he is always trying to educate the public on the relationship between hazard and outrage.

Hazard refers to how much harm a risk actually does and outrage denotes how much upset people get about it. The most striking feature about the relationship is their abysmally low correlation, which in a numerical figure amounts to about 0.2. In simpler words, the risks that actually harm people and the risks that upset people are unrelated to each other. If you know what harms people, you cannot say if people are upset about it. If people are upset about something, you know nothing about how dangerous it really is. This low correlation applies to all sorts of harms, be they medical, ecological or economic.

In contrast to actual hazard, outrage is associated with a perceived hazard, that is, what people think to be detrimental. Sandman discusses the interesting question of what causes what. Do people get upset about something because they think it is dangerous, or does something appear hazardous to them because they are upset? The reality is that it is a cyclical process; the arrow of causality goes both ways, but it is also true that one of these arrows is strong and the other is weak. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the stronger direction of causality is from outrage to perceived hazard. People tend to believe something is hazardous because they’re upset about it.

Understanding this dynamic is important if we wish to alter the state of affairs. If you try to correct the hazard perception, the outrage will be minimally reduced. People will respond with denial or they will alter the hazard perception in such a way as to counter your correction, and they will remain upset. The best way to reduce perceived hazard in cases where actual hazard is low is to try to calm people down. This is outrage management. On the other hand, if the perceived hazard is low and the actual hazard is high, people need to be made more upset to take the matter seriously.

I am frequently reminded of Dr Sandman’s work, as our country is very fond of sudden outrage, and this becomes all the more pertinent as we approach the upcoming elections. Media and journalists play the eager role of amplifying this vicious cycle of indignation and hazard misperception, while we lack any public specialists who may help bring any semblance of sanity and balance to it.

To take a prominent example, the actual hazard of blasphemy is practically non-existent, yet the outrage it evokes is volcanic. The actual hazard of factory safety conditions is alarmingly high, but the outrage is proportionately very low. Recently, a Pakistani blogger who goes by the name of ‘Sky is Neela’ analysed the available terrorism data and showed that the Karachi terrorists have killed approximately the same number of people as have been killed by suicide bombings and drone attacks combined, yet the associated public and political outrage is highly unequal.

With regards to the coming elections, both the masses and the intellectuals appear to be very concerned with the ideological leanings of the political parties in deciding who to vote for, however, to my mind, the actual top priorities should be policies related to health, education, energy and economics, but hardly anyone ever talks about them.

The political parties and media have vested interests in this disproportion between hazard and outrage because they utilise the outrage to garner more political support and sell their newspapers respectively. Risk communication can be made effective only if the media, intellectuals and politicians act selflessly to determine the actual dangers that threaten our country and communicate them to the public, while at the same time managing their outrage in matters where it is not warranted. However, given our national lifelong love for hysterical theatrics in matters of politics, the prospects are but despairing.

The writer is a doctor based in Lahore. Email: awaisaftab@gmail.com; Twitter: @awaisaftab