A Look at How We Process and Act on Information

Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, risk and behavioral scientist

In today’s world, where people have many ways to get their news, the challenge is sorting through information to identify what’s important and what isn’t — and determining whether the information is trustworthy. “When we don’t manage trust, we fail to manage risk,” says Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, a risk and behavioral scientist.

Chakraborty, who specializes in managing risks that threaten human security and well-being, ranging from climate change to pandemics, recently spoke to the National Press Club’s Communicators’ Committee about how people process and act on information, including what they read and hear about in the news.

In Chakraborty’s opinion, “The media overreports sensational information and underreports other information the public needs to keep them safe.”  She says this is the very reason there is inconsistency between the public’s perception of risks and actual risks.

The media’s tendency to overreport terrorist attacks, for example, results in high levels of public outrage when she says the actual risk of a terrorist attack is low. In contrast, the public often has a decreased perception of risk when it comes to certain health conditions because the media underreports the information, according to Chakraborty.

Research shows when people hear information repeatedly, they view it as being more important.

That’s where communicators play a valuable role by working to ensure their target audience is receiving messages as intended. However, Chakraborty points out, “Even the most experienced communicators cannot accurately predict how their messages are processed and interpreted.”

The challenge, she says, is that communicators are tasked with delivering information and often don’t have the resources or expertise to conduct the necessary research to ensure their messages are being interpreted as intended, much less are resulting in desirable decision-making and behavioral outcomes. The solution, she says, is to test and evaluate messages.

Chakraborty concluded with a quote from her mentor, Carnegie Mellon University professor Baruch Fischhoff: “One should no more release untested communications than untested pharmaceuticals.”

A good reminder for all communicators when organizations want to eliminate research to save money.