Posted on Peter Sandman’s website:

Some of the content of this column has been lifted from the familiarity and memorability sections of my 1993 Responding to Community Outrage book and my 1998 “OUTRAGE Prediction and Managementsoftware.

I wanted to revisit the topic for two reasons. First, website readers usually don’t get around to downloading the book or the software. And second, both book and software focus exclusively on the outrage management side of the coin: addressing familiarity and memorability issues in order to calm stakeholders’ outrage. This column also considers the precaution advocacy side: the role of familiarity and memorability when the goal is to arouse increased outrage.

It’s a basic tenet of risk perception that people tend to take a risk seriously or shrug it off mostly in response to factors like familiarity, control, trust, dread, and responsiveness – factors I have labeled collectively the “outrage factors.”  It follows that the most effective way to manage people’s response to risk is to manage the outrage factors … manage the outrage down if you think people are overreacting to a trivial risk, and manage it up if you think they are under-reacting to a serious risk.

But as is so often the case, the details are more complicated than the principles. In this column, I want to get down in the weeds about one outrage factor: familiarity.

First the basics.

People usually underestimate familiar risks. Having driven a car for years without an accident, we find it hard to remember that driving is a serious risk. Getting on the back of an elephant feels like a much riskier way to travel.

For the most part, we don’t “estimate” familiar risks at all; they’re too familiar to bother thinking about. Most of us get into our cars without ever considering whether driving is a significant risk. If we did pause to estimate the risk of driving, we might or might not recognize that it is sizable. But familiarity closes our minds to the very question.

Too much familiarity, in fact, is one of the biggest communication problems in employee safety. Employees are typically so familiar with workplace risks that the outrage disappears. Pretty soon they aren’t taking the prescribed precautions seriously enough, and the accident rate goes up. As safety trainers know, even the most dramatic warnings lose their capacity to provoke outrage (and caution) when they become familiar. Similarly, the most dangerous driver on the road isn’t the brand-new driver crawling along timorously. The most dangerous driver is the same teenager a year or so later, still not very skillful but now familiar with the experience and far too confident – and the elderly driver whose decades of familiarity obscure the new reality of slowed reaction time.

When you’re trying to alarm people – to get them to take precautions or demand precautions – familiarity is your enemy.

But when you’re trying to reassure people, familiarity is your ally. This explains why the most outspoken opponents of many controversial facilities are located comparatively far from the facility. The nearest neighbors presumably face a greater hazard, but their familiarity with the facility is higher and so their outrage is lower. (Often the nearest neighbors also get more benefits from the facility; that makes the risk fairer, which makes the outrage lower, which disinclines them to focus much on the hazard.)

One tried-and-true strategy for ameliorating outrage is therefore to increase familiarity. The perceived risk of technologies goes down as the technology gets more familiar. So does the perceived risk of leisure activities. And of investments. Of course increasing familiarity in order to decrease outrage is a good thing only if the technologies, leisure activities, or investments are fairly safe. It’s a problem if they are fairly dangerous.

Consider hazardous waste cleanups, for example. A longstanding barrier to cleaning up hazardous waste sites is that the cleanup technology is exotic and therefore tends to provoke outrage. It was a familiar puddle of crud, unattractive but familiar: “Hey, I’ll meet you by the lagoon.”

Suddenly, it goes high-tech. There’s a trailer camp of consultants; they’re sinking high-pressure injection wells; maybe they’re bringing a rotary kiln incinerator to the site. Remediation technicians are walking around the site in moon suits. Talk about double messages! Did you ever have anybody knock on your door in a moon suit? “Just testing your drinking water, nothing to worry about.”

All that unfamiliar high-tech paraphernalia increases the outrage. Just as the hazard is about to go down, a familiar risk becomes an exotic risk, and the outrage skyrockets.

So it pays to organize a media event in front of City Hall the week before the cleanup starts. Let kids walk around in the moon suits. Demythologize the technology; make it familiar. You’ll probably also want to explain that occupational safety rules call for hazwaste workers to wear their protective gear at all times – partly because their exposure is cumulative and “up close and personal,” partly because they need to be ready if anything unexpected happens, but mostly because it’s easier to have a consistent procedure than to ask your employees to keep assessing what PPE to wear this time. But it’s not the explanation that will reassure neighbors the most. It’s the kids walking around in the moon suits.

The basic principle in a nutshell: Familiarity signals safety. So if you want people to be more concerned and therefore more cautious, you should try to make the situation less familiar (or remind them of the ways in which it is unfamiliar). If you want people to be less concerned and less cautious, on the other hand, you should try to make the situation more familiar (or remind them of the ways in which it is familiar).

Even this basic principle has occasional exceptions. For most people most of the time, familiarity has an outrage-reducing impact. We get used to the situation and desensitized to its downsides. But once in a while familiarity has exactly the opposite effect. Most neighbors of a noisy industrial facility, for example, become accustomed to the noise and it stops bothering them so much. But for a handful of neighbors the noise just gets more and more intrusive and intolerable. Finally they cross some tipping point; either they move or they organize an activist group. A small number of people who can’t adjust to the situation can sometimes have a huge impact. But they’re still the exception. The rule remains: Familiarity signals safety, so more familiarity leads to less outrage.

Fluency: Familiarity versus Perceived Familiarity

Like so much else in risk communication, familiarity is in the eye of the beholder. What matters most isn’t how familiar someone actually is with a risky situation; it’s how familiar he or she feels. It’s perceived familiarity that matters most.

People can feel unfamiliar with a situation they actually understand quite well or, conversely, they can feel familiar with something they don’t understand at all.

One highly significant source of perceived familiarity is “processing fluency” – the ease with which information is perceived or remembered. Actual familiarity increases processing fluency, of course. If you have experienced a stimulus a lot of times before, your mind can process it more easily. So we get used to the association of processing fluency with familiarity. Then along comes something that’s easy to process for reasons other than familiarity … and we mistakenly think it’s familiar because it’s easy to process.

A stranger who looks a lot like one of your oldest friends, for example, almost instantly seems like someone you’re going to like. Intellectually you know that s/he is a stranger. But s/he seems pleasantly, comfortably, safely familiar – and you’re well on your way toward feeling friendly before you’ve even been introduced.

Consider this elegant study by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz. College students were asked to judge the degree of hazard posed by ten food additives (all of them made-up 12-letter nonsense words). Five of the “additives” were fairly easy to pronounce (e.g. Magnalroxate), while the other five were very difficult (e.g. Hnegripitrom). Ease of pronunciation is a classic example of processing fluency. Since all ten nonsense words were completely unfamiliar, fluency in this case couldn’t have had anything to do with actual familiarity. Nonetheless, the students thought the hard-to-pronounce (disfluent) hypothetical additives were more novel (that is, less familiar) – and also considered them more hazardous. Statistical analysis demonstrated that perceived novelty mediated the effect of ease-of-pronunciation on perceived risk. In other words, hard-to-pronounce food additives seemed more dangerous than easy-to-pronounce additives because they seemed less familiar.

In a follow-up study, the same authors showed that hard-to-pronounce nonexistent amusement park rides were perceived as more exciting and adventurous than easy-to-pronounce rides, again because they sounded less familiar. But they were also perceived as likelier to make riders nauseated. As Song and Schwartz commented in a review article on fluency research, “the ease with which the names of stimuli could be pronounced influenced their perceived familiarity. This perceived familiarity, in turn, influenced how risky the stimuli seemed, no matter if the risk was desirable or undesirable.”

The concept of “desirable risk” may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t – and we have more than the faux risk of amusement park rides to prove the point. Consider the growing popularity of adventure travel and extreme sports, where the risk is real. People vary widely in their risk aversion, risk tolerance, and even risk seeking. And the same individual varies widely over time. In most ways we get more risk-averse, and more wedded to the familiar, as we get older. But we often resist doing so – one factor contributing to the phenomenon of the midlife crisis.

In case you didn’t know it already, there is also research demonstrating that people seek out familiar-seeming (fluent) stimuli more when they’re feeling sad than when they’re feeling happy. The authors of one such study explain that people in a bad mood choose familiar-seeming stimuli “presumably because familiarity signals safety.”

They emphasize the role of fluency: “This preference can occur with merely repeated ‘old’ stimuli, but it is most robust with ‘new’ but highly familiar prototypes of a known category.” People in a good mood feel safe enough already, the authors say, which “eliminates the preference for familiar stimuli.”

Fluency matters in the real world too. A 2006 study looked at the performance of newly issued stocks with easy-to-pronounce or difficult-to-pronounce ticker symbols (e.g. KAR versus RDO). A $1,000 investment in stocks with fluent ticker symbols did $85.35 better on the first day of trading than a $1,000 investment in stocks with disfluent ticker symbols. Even after a year of trading, the fluent basket of stocks was still $20.25 ahead of the disfluent basket. Presumably the stocks with easy-to-pronounce ticker symbols seemed more familiar and therefore less risky to investors, who were therefore willing to pay more for them.

The Song and Schwarz review article, by the way, was entitled “If it’s easy to read, it’s easy to do, pretty, good, and true.” Another study summarized in the article found that identical exercise instructions were judged to take nearly twice as long to complete when printed in a hard-to-read font than when the font was easy to read. Recipes looked easier to follow in fluent fonts than is disfluent fonts. (So fancy fonts in restaurants are a good idea, signaling that you’re buying a meal that’s hard to cook; fancy fonts in a cookbook are a bad idea, signaling that following the recipe will be too much work.) Statements of fact were more likely to be judged truthful when printed with a color contrast that made reading easy than when the color of the words and the color of the background were too similar. Rhyming aphorisms were considered more truthful than non-rhyming aphorisms. Prototypical faces (such as computer composites of many people’s faces) were judged more attractive than more unusual faces.

Whatever the outcome variable (perception of riskiness, ease of implementation, truth, beauty, etc.), the causal links here are the same: processing fluency → perceived familiarity → safer, easier to do, truer, prettier, etc.

So maybe safety messaging should put warnings about the risk in a hard-to-read font (hard to read means unfamiliar means scary) but information about the recommended precautions in an easy-to-read font (easy to read means easy to do).

And think about all those really complicated corporate pamphlets and PowerPoints explaining how the factory or the mine or the power plant works. The goal is presumably to make the technical stuff more familiar and thus less alarming. But explanations that are tough to understand can easily backfire. If I’m having trouble understanding you, the disfluency of your explanation is working against your effort to make the technology more familiar.

The weirdest fluency/disfluency example I can remember occurred in Australia, where I was working on a controversy about cell phone towers (“mobile phone masts,” in Australia). Neighbors objected vociferously when a new tower went up in a residential neighborhood. In interviews with some of the strongest opponents, one unexpected complaint kept cropping up: Some people felt like the tower was looking into their windows, spying on their private lives. It was a bit of a stretch to picture the electronic equipment on top of the tower as a face, but we decided to take the image literally. Would it help if we painted eyes on the tower top, and painted them shut? Yes, a number of interviewees responded, a little surprised at their own response. It was done, and it did help. The unadorned tower equipment had been disfluent and had felt threatening. Adding closed eyes made the tower easier to process as a sleeping face and thus an unthreatening part of the neighborhood.

My own favorite cell tower, adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike, looks to me like an abstract sculpture of an evergreen tree. For me it’s fluent, easily processed as tree-art. I anticipate seeing it with pleasure whenever I drive that stretch of the turnpike.

Or consider this excerpt – entitled “Safety v. familiarity” – from the blog of an American woman who spent some time visiting in South Africa, and then a year in Malawi.

I felt safer traveling in South Africa than I feel in Lilongwe [Malawi’s capital city] … because everything in Lilongwe is unfamiliar. In contrast, the urbanized parts of South Africa I visited were much more similar to the United States than to Malawi. There was a visible police presence, lots of people walking on the streets, working streetlights and stoplights, and (relatively) clear signage….

The irony, of course, is that I imagine Malawi has a much lower crime rate than South Africa….

Certainly, crimes in Malawi are less violent than crimes in South Africa; most assailants have panga knives rather than guns, and most crimes are property-driven.

But cities in South Africa feel like cities in the US, and there is a sense of safety in familiarity….

I had heard lots about South Africa’s crime rate before I visited, and I was honestly expecting to feel less safe than I did. Other than having my Leatherman stolen from my luggage (yes, I am still whining about that), I had no incidences worth mentioning. Of course, I am a relatively cautious person, and try not to put myself in stupid places. But it came as a revelation to me: safety is, in large part, familiarity with my surroundings and ability to read them.

Of course South Africa wasn’t really more familiar to this blog author than Malawi; both were new and unfamiliar countries, with new and unfamiliar risks. But for her, South Africa was more fluent. So it felt safer, even though she suspected the data would show it was actually less safe. The most dangerous situation is when we feel familiar and safe in a situation that is objectively unfamiliar and risky.

The fluency/familiarity/risk relationship represents a serious paradox for safety professionals. As we teach people about a risk and help them understand it better, understand what precautions they should take, understand how to manage the precautions, etc., we make the risk seem more familiar – and it therefore loses some of its capacity to provoke outrage … which makes it that much harder for us to keep people motivated to take the precautions. The factors conducive to understanding how to stay safe are thus antithetical in some ways to the factors conducive to feeling a need to stay safe.

In short, making a risk more familiar makes it safer, because people know more about how to protect themselves. But making it more fluent (more familiar-seeming) also makes it feel safer, so we relax our guard – which makes it less safe. Safety training really does make people more secure. And it really does inculcate a false sense of security.

Can you have your cake and eat it too? Can you make a risk more familiar without making it feel more familiar? Does it help, for example, to familiarize employees with the safety equipment and procedures while leaving the unsafe situation, the risk itself, mysterious, unfamiliar-seeming, and thus outrage-arousing? Conceivably. But while it may be possible to mitigate the fluency/familiarity/risk paradox, I don’t see any way to eliminate it.

Consider repetition, for example. We repeat safety information again and again in the hope that it will sink in. That makes sense. Safety information is often boring, and repetition is one pretty effective way to get people to absorb boring information. (See my column on “Motivating Attention.”) But repetition is also a key component of processing fluency. That is, frequently repeated messages are easier to process. So as we repeat our risk warnings, we make them more fluent, which makes them seem more familiar, which makes them less scary.

There is no such fluency/familiarity/risk paradox when you’re trying to calm people down. Whereas familiar (or familiar-seeming) warnings lose some of their capacity to arouse outrage, reassurances become more and more reassuring as the information they contain gets more and more familiar.

Familiarity with What? (Part One)

Okay, so increasing (perceived) familiarity is a good way to reduce outrage, and reducing (perceived) familiarity is a good way to increase outrage.

But familiarity with what, exactly? Among the options:

  • The event– making people feel more/less familiar with something that happened or will happen or might happen
  • The substance– making people feel more/less familiar with some chemical or other substance that plays a role in the situation at hand: how it looks, how it smells, etc.
  • The technology– making people feel more/less familiar with how the processes work, the science and engineering behind them
  • The location– making people feel more/less familiar with the site, the place where everything happens
  • The equipment– making people feel more/less familiar with the machinery that’s used
  • The vocabulary– making people feel more/less familiar with what things are called, especially the technical terms that sound scary when they’re unfamiliar
  • The company and the industry– making people feel more/less familiar with the company that’s doing the work and the industry it’s part of
  • The people– making people feel more/less familiar with the key individuals involved
  • The technical data– making people feel more/less familiar with the technical information that underlies the assessment of risk

A few of these deserve further discussion.

Re substance:

Very often unfamiliar chemicals get used to make familiar products – or are even ingredients in those products. Lumber and paper, for example, are familiar; but the parts-per-trillion of dioxin emitted by the sawmill are not. Similarly, it is harder to be frightened of gasoline than of benzene in the gasoline. So telling people that an unfamiliar chemical whose very name sounds scary is found in lots of familiar products they use every day is a pretty effective way to reduce their outrage about the chemical. On the other side of the coin, telling people that a familiar product contains a dozen unfamiliar, scary-sounding chemicals is a pretty effective way to increase their outrage about the product.

If you’re on the outrage-reducing side of a controversy, trying to avoid mentioning scary-sounding chemicals is a lost cause; it simply empowers your critics to bring it up at moments of their own choosing. The only viable option is to make the chemical more familiar.

A chemical named 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC to its friends) is an adhesive used in the latex backing on most carpets; it is the principal source of the distinctive new carpet odor. Although 4-PC has no known harmful effects, a couple of decades ago I worked on a controversy over whether it might be harmful. I urged my client, a carpet industry trade association, to advise retailers to offer wary customers a swatch of new carpeting to take home with them. “Get used to the smell and see if it bothers you,” I thought salespeople should say. “If you don’t like the smell, we can unroll your carpeting in the warehouse and leave it for a few days so most of the 4-PC can dissipate before we install it in your house. But a lot of people like the smell. It tells the world you just got new carpeting!” My client was considering a scratch-and-sniff advertising campaign when the controversy blew over.

Re technology:

Cultures vary in their receptiveness to new technologies. In the most receptive countries, an unfamiliar technology is likelier to be greeted with fascination and even enthusiasm than with outrage – unless there is some other outrage factor at work (dread, for example, or unfairness). But acceptance that's not accompanied by familiarity is paper-thin. As soon as problems or objections arise, the unfamiliarity of the technology makes the problems seem bigger and the objections more credible.

It is widely supposed that high-tech processes are more susceptible to outrage than low-tech processes. This is generally true, but only if the high-tech process isn’t familiar. Once it is, people forget it’s high-tech. Televisions have made this transition for virtually everyone, at least in the developed world; computers and cell phones have made it for almost everyone except the elderly; robots and cloned animals have made it for only a very few.

Re location:

Part of locational familiarity is simply whether people have been there or not; that’s why plant tours help reduce outrage. But as you know from the previous discussion of fluency, it also matters whether the location seems familiar – whether it seems similar to other, familiar locations elsewhere. Some industrial sites look simple and accessible (fluent) the first time you see them; others strike people as strange and forbidding and take a long time to stop looking scary.

Just because it has dominated the landscape for decades, don’t assume your industrial site must be familiar to its neighbors. It is to some neighbors, especially if they’re also employees. For others the site remains alien and exotic. (“Who knows what really goes on there?”)

When you’re on the precaution advocacy side of the issue, trying to arouse some much-needed concern, a familiar location makes your task significantly harder. Radon is a decay product of uranium in the soil. It rises through the rock and soil, and if it happens to hit the surface under your house, it rises into your basement, where it concentrates and threatens you with lung cancer. Well, I stopped being afraid of my basement when I was five years old! It is very hard to get people to take a risk seriously when it strikes in such familiar turf as their own homes. My home is my castle, my sanctuary. Radon emanating from an industrial source – the radon-emitting gypsum waste stack of a phosphate mine, for example – is quite another story. Of course, once people do come to grips with a risk on their home turf, they may be all the more outraged at the invasion. But often they simply don’t come to grips with it; the familiarity of home makes it hard to believe the risk could be serious.

Re vocabulary:

When you’re trying to keep outrage low, the choice between avoiding unfamiliar language and working to make it familiar is a tough one. If there is no controversy now and none on the horizon, it probably makes sense to eschew polysyllabic prose. But if you have opponents, why leave it to them to point out that your trademarked “SafeClean” product is really 2,3-polydimethylmeatloaf?

Chemical company middle managers endlessly circulate parody warnings about the risks of “dihydrogen monoxide,” which is present in many foods and healthcare products despite the documented fact that thousands die every year from overexposure. Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water. Ferrous oxide is rust – but you could probably get a roomful of reporters rushing for their cars to cover a ferrous oxide spill. In the face of all this, something like “2,3-polydimethylmeatloaf” sounds like it just has to be dangerous. There’s no point in running away from the problem; your only feasible option is to get people used to good-ole 2,3-poly.

This is generally true of scary vocabulary, I think. Making the term familiar and thus less scary is a better course than trying to avoid it altogether. I urge my shale gas clients to embrace “fracking” rather than insisting on “hydraulic fracturing.” I urge my Canadian oil sands clients to use “tar sands” interchangeably with “oil sands.” Pretending that “biosolids” aren’t human waste used as fertilizer strikes me as just as self-defeating as trying to get away with “rapid oxidation” as a euphemism for “explosion.”

Re people:

The outrage provoked by a potentially risky situation is significantly lower when you know the people who are managing the situation (unless, of course, to know them is to hate and mistrust them).

This is too obvious to belabor, but it’s also too important to leave unsaid. If the plant manager is a stranger or an arrogant jerk, it’s very easy to believe the plant is a serious hazard. If the plant manager has been a community fixture for years, coaches a kids’ sports team or sings in a church choir, shows up at Fourth of July picnics, and seems like the kind of person you’d like to have over to dinner, it’s a lot tougher to stay worried about what might be coming out of the plant’s smokestacks.