David Ropeik, risk communication expert and author of ‘How risky is it really?’, says decision-making is a complex mix of scientific evidence, emotions and other social cues.
In this video, he notes that most people vaccinate because “they know it’s healthy and that the risks are minimal” but also thanks to their own experience and the behaviour of the people around them.
“One good example of [how we make health decisions] is how widespread vaccination is. We hear about all the ‘isn’t’ but most people do vaccinate, and very few of them have looked up all the science. They are making those decisions in the context of what is social acceptable, what their personal experience has been, the experience of their friends, what they hear is the norm of respectful social behaviour.”
Ropeik says that we worry about some risks more than the evidence warrants – and we worry much less about other things which are, in fact, relatively more dangerous.
He calls this the ‘risk-perception gap’. “People who are hesitant about vaccines or refuse vaccines are denying or overlooking the overwhelming evidence about the minimal risk of vaccines and as a result putting themselves and society at risk,” he says.
However, Ropeik says it is wrong – and pointless – to label people as “irrational” if they miscalculate complex risks.
If we want to live in a society where vaccine-preventable diseases are not spreading through the community, it is important to recongise how decisions are made.