Seeking and Avoiding Information in a Risky World Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Research Grant (2017 - 2022)
Dr. Chun Wei Choo, University of Toronto (PI) [firstname.lastname@example.org]
We live in a risk society, where advances of knowledge open up new realms of human activity but also create new types of societal level risks in areas such as climate change or chemicals in food and agriculture. When people feel threatened by major hazards, but are uncertain about what an effective response would be, we expect them to seek information in order to decide how they would deal with the risks. In reality, human information behaviour in risk situations is more complicated. People vary widely in the level of interest and effort they bring to acquiring information about societal risks: some would actively search and process information, while others would shun relevant information. Therein lies an information asymmetry of the modern risk society. On the one hand, we are steadily acquiring knowledge about the causes and consequences of major hazards and are making that information available to the public. On the other hand, many in the general population do not seem to seek or engage with this information — to develop the balanced, well-informed understanding that is needed to make choices that would alter behaviors or commitments.
We see information seeking as a critical component of risk decision making. We suggest that the kind of information seeking people undertake would determine how stable or volatile their attitudes are about a risk, and how they would act or not act based on their perception of the risk. At the same time, research has found that information avoiding is a common response when people are in risky situations where information about the risk may increase their level of anxiety or distress. People seem to avoid risk-related information as a way of managing uncertainty and its stressful effects. For societal level risks that require both individual and collective action by a knowledgeable, committed public, whether and how people seek risk information becomes pressing questions. A fuller understanding of risk information behaviour is a necessary step towards fostering well-informed public understanding and engagement with the risks posed by major hazards, and it would also enable policy makers to tailor messages and design channels that would better support risk information seeking by the public.
The objective of this research is to investigate the cognitive, affective, and social precursors that would explain if and how people seek information about societal level risks posed by climate change and food safety. A unique aspect of the study is its focus on information avoidance — why do people choose to avoid information about risks that could bring severe and widespread harm to society? The study will investigate how information seeking and avoiding is influenced by a range of factors such as the cognitive perception of and affective responses to the risk, social trust in the organizations that manage and regulate the risk, social norms about being informed about the risk, and anticipated affective responses of risk information seeking. We expect these variables to have a significant influence on people's intention to seek or avoid risk information.
The research will deepen our understanding of risk information seeking behaviour in an era where an abundance of information competes for public attention, and where people have growing control over the information they choose to attend to. The research will identify practical implications for designing information strategies that can increase public understanding of and engagement with major societal risks. These implications will be of particular value to managers and professionals whose work involves communicating or providing risk information.