Mental Models, Risk Communication and a New Book

Mental models, mind sets, world views all mean basically the same thing – how humans perceive the world around them and how these perceptions affect their decision making and behaviour.

When it comes to communicating about risk, getting insight into people’s mental models goes a long way to helping your communications strategies and materials do what they’re supposed to do – convince people to make decisions and take actions to keep safe.

Whether it’s getting workers to wear proper protective equipment (PPE) and adopt safe work practices or helping consumers understand the risks and benefits of prescription drugs, risk communications is all about supplying lay people with the information they need to make informed decisions and judgments about risk to health, safety and the environment. It’s both an academic discipline and communications practice area.

Finding out what people need to know

A cardinal rule in risk communication is you need to understand what people don’t know that they need to know about a certain risk or complex issue. How does one do that?

One way is to study people’s mental models through in-depth one-on-one qualitative research interviews with a small sample of respondents using open-ended questions. The aim of this research is to not only know what they think, but why they think that way. This information and insight are then compared to the expert knowledge, often represented in a graphical form, called an “expert model”. This allows for gaps and alignments between expert and lay thinking on a particular topic to be identified, and then used to inform communications strategy and materials. One of the benefits of this research is that it can reveal unexpected insights that could not have been predicted by experts, and those insights can make a world of difference in whether your risk communications succeed or not.

This approach, sometimes called the “mental models research approach”, is at the heart of the research consulting work I do as Senior Researcher with Decision Partners which brings me to some exciting news.

A new book – mental models case studies

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new book in this topic written by five of my colleagues and edited by yours truly. Mental Modeling Approach: Risk Management Application Case Studies (Springer) was written to help communications specialists and others deal with risk communications challenges. It presents a cross-sectoral overview of the myriad ways this approach can be applied in real world settings. Case study examples include stakeholder consultation in the energy sector, mine worker safety, flood risk management, food safety and preparedness for a chemical release emergency.

For many of these projects, I was directly involved in the primary research through in-depth mental models interviews and am immensely proud to have participated in and contributed to this body of work.

Congratulations to the five authors and to all the contributors, and special thanks to Melinda (Lindy) Paul, our editor at Springer. What a wonderful way to wrap up 2016 and celebrate the holidays!


Qualitative Research to Improve Electrical Worker Safety

To work live or not work live. That is the question and decision that electricians face on a daily basis, and it’s an important one. It can mean the difference between life and death.

According to the Ontario Electrical Safety Authority the probable cause of 70% electrical related fatalities over 2004 to 2013 in Ontario was improper procedures. Despite improved worker training and education, serious electrical injuries and fatalities were not declining as much as expected. Many of these tragedies were the result of working on live wires.,

Last fall, through my affiliation with Decision Partners, I was part of a research team contracted to study this on behalf of the ESA. We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 60 Ontario electrical apprentices, journeymen and inspectors to discover the influences on their decision making to adhere to safe work practices – in particular, their decisions to work live.

One key finding was that nearly 90% of the electricians reported working live, either by choice or inadvertently. Another key finding was that the decision to work live is not always so clear cut – meaning it’s not always single decision with a single right choice. In some cases there are no other options. Linesmen working on overhead power lines, for example, have to work live. We also learned that the workplace is complex and dynamic, yet only 50% of electricians reported doing a hazard assessment before starting a job.

The results of the research are now being used to help develop ESA’s risk communication strategy and materials, with the goal of reducing the number of critical occupational injuries and fatalities among Ontario’s electrical safety workers.

You can learn more about this important research and the mental modeling approach that we used through a webinar, presented to the Ontario Risk and Insurance Management Society (ORIMS) on April 20, 2016 by Sarah Thorne, Co-Founder and President of Decision Partners and Dr. Joel Moody, ESA’s Director of Safety, Risk, Policy and Innovation.

Roofing and Risk Communications

I’m getting a new roof installed today. It’s not easy writing to the bang, bang, bang of the roofers’ hammers and shovels, but write I must. My roofing woes started about a year and a half ago when the shingles on the southern slopes started to curl and buckle. The south end always gets hit the worst, I learned. I’ve learned lots of other things about roofs lately; namely, that the shingles used in the previous roof installation were not up to the job.

About five years ago, I chanced across a notice by a local law firm about a class action suit against a particular shingle maker, alleging that these shingles didn’t live up to their guarantee and started to wear after only a few years. Turned out those were the same shingles on my roof. Though they weren’t giving me any trouble at the time, I decided to contact the law firm for more information in case they did later on. Everything seemed fine until the spring of last year. There they were – those curled, crumbling fragments of asphalt, ready to slide off or blow into the eves troughs any moment. So I joined the class action suit. I had hoped to postpone replacing the roof until a settlement with the shingle manufacturer had been reached, but there’s no way when your roof looks like this.


As I step out the door to check on progress, I watch for flying roof debris. One of the roofers comes into the house to wash some dust out of his eye. He asks me what I do. “I’m a writer,” I reply. “Really?” he asks. “You mean like books and stuff?” “No,” I respond. “I write proposals, reports, articles and blogs. And I’m also a research consultant.” I explain what that means. “I do lots of telephone research interviews with different folks to understand how they make decisions about risk.” He thoughtfully takes in this information and then says, “You know, there’s lots of risks in roofing.”

True enough, as there are in many other trade disciplines and industries – construction, electrical and mining. As we chat further I explain how, through the research consulting company I contract with, we sometimes interview people from these high risk trades and industries to learn how workers make decisions to use safety equipment and practice worker safety on the job. We present this insight to our clients through our reports and give recommendations (based on the research) on communicating strategically to help change worker behaviour and improve the organization’s overall safety performance. It’s called strategic risk communications and it emphasizes two-way dialogue and information exchange between the communicator and the recipient of information.

Its roots can be traced to a series of chemical accidents in the U.S. and elsewhere (particularly the chemical explosion at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India)  in the 1980s that resulted in Congressional action to mandate organizations or institutions (especially those in the chemical and manufacturing industries) to inform communities of any potential risks of their existence and operations. This was considered part of the public’s “right-to-know.” Risk communications specialists would engage with the public to gain an understanding on how to better focus their messaging, based on what audiences wanted to know. Over time, the discipline deepened to examine how audiences process and act on messages, resulting in a substantial body of risk communication research.

One obvious application area for such research is Occupational Health and Safety, but others include emergency planning and preparedness, public health, product safety, environmental management and assessment, and industrial infrastructure siting (think wind turbines, gas plants or nuclear power plants).

Much of the data is gathered from primary research — in-depth telephone interviews with people (stakeholders) using mostly open-ended questions designed to elicit what they think and why they think that way. What influences their thinking, perception or “mental model” about a particular issue?  The stakeholder mental models are then compared to graphical models depicting expert knowledge about the issue: gaps and alignments between the two are identified and used to design communications strategy and materials. One great feature of this type of research is that it can yields gems of information and insight that could not have been predicted by the experts studying the problem. But that makes sense. When it comes to occupational health and safety, you need to talk to the folks in the field.

Interestingly, I learned one such key insight from my brief conversation with the roofer this morning when he said “we’re supposed to wear safety harnesses when we’re up there, but sometimes the safety harnesses can be risky because we can trip over them”. I found this very interesting and told him that had he mentioned this in a formal research interview on roofer safety, his insight likely would have appeared in a client report.  Ironically, there may be circumstances that warrant deviating from the standard safety procedure to ensure one’s own safety and sometimes those are obvious only to the people actually doing the job. Strategic risk communications research is a useful tool to help uncover that information.

Pity no one communicated with me on the risks of my old shingles. But my new roof is now done and looks terrific, and I come away deeper understanding of the safety risks and reasoning of roofers. I like to think the roofer learned something about strategic risk communications research from me.