People perceive less risk when they believe that they can control it.

For instance, the absolute odds of dying in a car accident each year in the United States is 1 in 56000. If we normalize the risk out demographically, if you’re between the ages of 16 and 28, and male, your odds of death are higher than those of any other demographic. It’s a leading killer in the United States.

Yet, when we contrast that with deaths as a result of terrorism. Or deaths as a result of shark attacks. Or in airplane crashes — we get a very different degree of risk perception.

People are far less likely to appreciate the real risks when they believe that they’re in control.

In one way, people perceive more of a threat from a recession than say, a marketing catastrophe. Why? The aspect of controllability. With a recession – who’s to say what can be done to mitigate it. When it comes to something you control, like a marketing campaign, or say, driving your car…it’s quite different.

We can classify risks into two broad categories:

Risks we can mitigate
Risks we cannot mitigate

The question of whether or not a risk can be mitigated right to the vanishing point or not is interesting, but not terribly useful from a risk communication perspective. The idea is to answer the question: “yes, that’s a risk, but can we do anything about it?”. It’s important to have that answer clear before you try to communicate any form of risk.

There are risks that we cannot mitigate. Recession. A lightning strike. The entire Internet crashing at just the wrong moment. Those are background risks.