Training/Incentives

Teach your children

Risk communication principles are identical for kids and adults

October 1, 2011
KEYWORDS training / Values
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This past April, a retired teacher posted this comment on risk communication expert Peter Sandman’s Guestbook on his web site
www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#children.

“For us adults (though I barely qualify despite my 67 years), the biggest challenge in communicating about risk is in dealing with children. Our granddaughter is seven years old, very big and very bright for her age, and has just learned to ride a two-wheel bicycle. On a recent visit, she proudly demonstrated her skills to grandma and me, riding around the quiet neighborhood, wearing a safety helmet, and staying on the sidewalk. When it comes to intersections, she has been instructed to walk her bicycle across the street. Although she has been instructed many times to ‘look both ways’ before crossing the street as a pedestrian and now a bicycle rider, she often forgets. What is your advice for parents and grandparents?”

Peter’s response

There is no field of pediatric risk communication. Riskcomm principles are identical for kids and adults. The best strategies for persuading children to take precautions are the same ones that work best for persuading adults. Or, rather, the best strategies for adults are the same ones that work best for children. It’s better put that way for two reasons:

  • Most people’s risk communication experience is largely with their kids and grandkids.
  • Our “adult” responses to risk and to risk communication tend to be pretty childlike.

The most basic principle of risk communication strikes many people as decidedly childlike. Instead of figuring out how much danger a particular situation poses based on the data available to us, we tend to become concerned about a risk in proportion to the strength of a set of emotion-arousing factors (PDF available at www.psandman.com) like mistrust, unresponsiveness, lack of control, unfairness, etc. In the terminology I have popularized, these are “outrage factors,” and our response to risk is mostly a response to “outrage,” not to “hazard.”

Your problem is that the risk of crossing the street engenders very little outrage in your granddaughter. If vehicles weren’t permitted in your residential neighborhood, for example, your granddaughter might experience some outrage at drivers who flouted the rule. Her outrage would greatly increase her inclination to check for vehicles, whether she was crossing the street or not.

“Precaution advocacy” is my label for risk communication designed for high-hazard, low-outrage situations — that is, situations where people are less upset by a risky situation than the situation justifies technically. For a list of articles on ways of motivating people (including granddaughters) to take precautions in high-hazard, low-outrage situations, see my “Precaution Advocacy Index.” See particularly my article entitled: “‘Watch Out!’ — How to Warn Apathetic People,” an introductory catalog of precaution advocacy strategies. (Available at www.psandman.com)

Arousing outrage

The most obvious precaution advocacy strategy, and often the best, is to arouse some outrage. You probably don’t want to undertake a risk communication campaign to convince your granddaughter that she is being oppressed by evil drivers who maliciously ignore her preference to monopolize the road, unfairly and unpredictably intruding on her space. But some of the outrage factors on my list — dread and memorability, for example — are more closely related to the fear component of outrage than to its anger component, and are readily available to you as tools to get your granddaughter to focus more on bicycle safety.

In other words, you can probably scare your granddaughter into better street-crossing compliance by making use of vivid (memorable, dread-inducing) imagery of looming trucks, squished little girls, sterile intensive care units, and the like. (In another decade or so, she’ll probably take a high school drivers ed class that will pursue exactly this approach.)

Frightening your granddaughter about street-crossing doesn’t mean turning your granddaughter into a more fearful child than she is today. Her fearfulness is pretty much a constant, a stable part of who she is. (I call this “the Law of Conservation of Outrage.” Available at www.psandman.com.) So all your vivid imagery can do is reallocate some of her preexisting fearfulness from other objects (thunderstorms, maybe, or parental arguments) to street-crossing. This is important to bear in mind, lest you decide (as many health agencies have decided) that frightening children is out-of-bounds.

Here’s another way of seeing the Law of Conservation of Outrage. People have a “worry agenda” — and everyone’s worry agenda (even a seven-year-old’s) is so overcrowded that many worries never make it to the top of the stack. Getting hit by a car when she crosses the street is already on your granddaughter’s worry agenda, thanks to you, but it keeps getting supplanted by other worries that are more emotionally impactful or have been brought to her attention more frequently or more recently. One way to keep your granddaughter focused on her street-crossing worry, therefore, is to raise the level of emotional arousal attached to that worry.

The problems with fear arousal

As a strategy of precaution advocacy, fear appeals have three problems.

First, you’ve got to offer people things to do to reduce their fear. Arousing fear without providing an action outlet is unkind — and ineffective. People are strongly motivated to reduce their fear. If they can’t reduce it by taking precautionary action, they’ll reduce it by deciding that you’re a foolish worrywart and shrugging off the danger. You’ve got this one knocked; your granddaughter can reduce her fear of street-crossing by looking both ways before she crosses.

The second problem with fear arousal is that it can overshoot the mark, ending in denial instead of bearable and actionable fearfulness. The relationship between fear appeals and precaution-taking is a bell-shaped  curve. If you arouse too little fear, street-crossing doesn’t make it to the top of your granddaughter’s worry agenda and she “forgets” to look both ways before she crosses the street. If you arouse too much fear, on the other hand, the mere act of looking both ways may stir up intolerably strong emotions. So your granddaughter doesn’t cross the street at all. Or, worse yet, she crosses the street with her eyes tightly shut so she won’t have to think about getting squished by a truck. Or she simply “forgets” to look — only now it’s unconsciously motivated forgetting; thinking about crossing the street is too scary, so she crosses without thinking about it. If you’re going to scare people as a way to motivate precaution-taking, make sure you don’t scare them too much, all the way into denial.

The third problem is usually the biggest one: You might not scare your granddaughter enough, at least in the long run. People tend to get desensitized to fear-arousing messages. Over time, it takes grosser and grosser imagery to sustain the fear. Of course events in the real world may retrigger your granddaughter’s street-crossing fear — witnessing a pedestrian accident, for example, or experiencing a near-miss of her own. But you obviously can’t plan for those sorts of events, nor do you hope for them. So you need to see fear appeals as an interim strategy. Your goal is to use your granddaughter’s street-crossing fear to help her build a habit of safe street-crossing that will kick in as her fear begins to dissipate.

There’s a fourth problem that’s sometimes mentioned: the inability of young people to imagine their own deaths. Most seven-year-olds don’t yet understand that death is permanent; most 17-year-olds know it’s permanent but are somehow convinced that it’ll never happen to them. I don’t think this is a big precaution advocacy problem. Seven-year-olds understand perfectly well that getting hit by a car is a catastrophe. If they can imagine hospitals and pain and missing a best friend’s birthday party more easily than mortuaries and nonexistence, that’ll do.

Habits, rewards, and punishments

Over the long haul, one of the most effective ways to instill a precaution into people of any age is to make it a habit. Most people who put on their seatbelts or lock their doors, for example, don’t have to think about it every time; it’s habitual. For that matter, most adults habitually look both ways before crossing the street (whether on foot, on a bike, or in a car). They don’t have to decide to do it. They just do it.

Habits are acquired by practice. If you’re there often enough when your granddaughter walks her bike across the street, and each time you remind her to look both ways first, looking both ways will eventually become habitual for her. Better yet, if your granddaughter will put up with it, is to drill her. A bunch of times in quick succession, have her ride her bike to a specified point, get off, look both ways, and then (if nothing’s coming) cross the street.

Positive reinforcement is also an effective way to get people to take precautions. A quarter (or a gold star, or just an “attagirl” smile from grandpa) every time she stops and looks both ways will probably motivate your granddaughter to remember better. Nor is “every time” an essential prerequisite. In fact, B.F. Skinner discovered many decades ago that rodents and people alike respond best to what he called a “variable reinforcement schedule” of periodic rewards.

Of course we get desensitized to rewards the same way we do to fear. The time will come when quarters and gold stars fail to motivate your granddaughter, though hopefully your approval will still mean something.

Don’t take the concept of “reward” or “positive reinforcement” too literally. Fun is positively reinforcing too. Each time your granddaughter stops and looks before crossing the street, try asking her what she sees. This can turn into an observation-training game, as she learns to notice more and more details she missed in previous go-rounds. Or it can turn into an imagination game, when she claims she sees a unicorn climbing a beanstalk and you say no, that’s a baby rhinoceros practicing its circus balancing act. As long as the game isn’t so engrossing that your granddaughter forgets to take note of an approaching car, it’s a good positive reinforcer for the stop-and-look behavior you’re trying to encourage.

The best positive reinforcements are intrinsic rather than extrinsic. There’s a good chance your daughter likes her bike helmet, for example. Maybe wearing the helmet makes her feel like a big girl. Maybe she got to choose it herself and likes its appearance: its color, its decals, etc. So you don’t have to reward her for helmet-wearing; helmet-wearing is its own reward. I can’t think of a way to make it similarly self-reinforcing to get off your bike at every corner and cautiously walk it across the street. It sounds like a drag, frankly, something I’m unlikely to do unless motivated by fear, extrinsic reward, or something. But if you can make the stop-and-look pattern intrinsically rewarding for your granddaughter, so much the better.

Adult bicycle riders, by the way, are less taken than children with the intrinsic rewards of bike helmets — especially if they recall happy childhoods with the wind in their hair as they raced their bikes downhill ... and no sweaty scalp at the end of the ride. A good friend of mine had a serious bike accident a few weeks ago riding without a helmet; maybe now fear — and her grown daughter’s razzing — will get her to acquire the helmet habit. Even so, adults aren’t immune to positive reinforcement as a strategy of precaution advocacy. Back when hardhats were new and controversial, one key to getting construction workers onboard was decals. A hardhat that displayed the insignia of your outfit and the name of your spouse (or your motorcycle) became a symbol of both group membership and individual identity, not a symbol of being afraid of head injuries.

On the whole, it’s best to think of rewards as a short-term measure, like fear appeals. By the time the rewards you’re willing to dispense are no longer a strong enough motivator, hopefully your granddaughter will have acquired the habit of looking before she crosses.

Negative reinforcement (punishment) is also a tool that belongs in your precaution advocacy toolkit. Most research suggests that rewards work better than punishments, but the combination works better than either alone. “You didn’t stop and look before you crossed the street just then, so we’re going to quit for today. You can ride your bike again tomorrow.”

Instilling norms

The next best thing to instilling a habit is instilling a norm. Norms are unwritten rules within a group about what members of that group commonly do or believe, and should do or believe, in specified situations. Parenting and grandparenting are largely about inculcating norms, so our children and grandchildren will know the “right” way to drink soup, deal with handicapped people, express their anger or frustration, cross the street on a bicycle, etc.

Once people have acquired an appropriate norm, fear arousal is no longer needed, and neither is positive reinforcement. Like habits, norms are self-sustaining.

Adults already have norms; they know (or think they know) the right way for members of their group to behave and think in most situations. Trying to replace these norms with new ones is exceedingly difficult. So the principal use of norms in adult precaution advocacy is to try to hook the behavior you’re recommending to an existing norm. When anti-fluoridation activists talk about “fluoride pollution” and anti-powerboat activists talk about “noise pollution,” for example, they’re trying to hook their causes to people’s existing norm that pollution is wrong. Adults are wide open to new norms only when they see themselves as in new situations. The newbie at a job site, for example, will pay serious attention to the orientation class, and even more concentrated attention to the casual advice (and actual behavior) of old-timers.

Kids are newbies at almost everything. They don’t know yet what the norms are, and they’re actively trying to find out — from their peers, their parents, their grandparents, everyone. That’s why it’s important to be a good role model for your granddaughter — to let her see you looking both ways before you cross the street, and to let her hear you expressing some criticism (privately to her) of strangers you see crossing the street without looking.

There’s an interesting — and extremely useful — connection between rewards and norms, and it’s a connection that applies to both adults and children. The more a particular behavior is rewarded, the likelier people are to do that behavior. But smaller rewards are actually better at inculcating norms than larger rewards are. Here’s how it works. If you offer your granddaughter a huge reward — ice cream, say — every time she looks before she crosses, she’ll certainly look … and if you ask her why, she’ll tell you candidly, “for the ice cream.” By contrast, your smiling approval may well be enough to motivate your granddaughter to stop and look, but it’s probably not enough for her to tell herself that she stops and looks simply to please grandpa. So she searches for a better reason to account for her behavior, and comes up with a norm: “Bicyclists are supposed to stop and look for cars before they cross the street so they won’t get run over.”

Thus, precaution advocacy is often a two-step strategy: first you motivate the precautionary behavior with a motivator that’s strong enough to produce the behavior but not strong enough to justify it cognitively. Then you offer people cognitive support — reasons why the behavior makes sense — and help them build a norm that will sustain the behavior over the long haul. For more on this two-step strategy, see “Using cognitive dissonance to get apathetic people moving,” posted at www.psandman.com.

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