This is the 22nd in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This one can be found (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the April 2011 issue of The Synergist, pp. 26–27.

Managing other people’s response to risk is mostly managing what I call their outrage – the amalgam of concern, fear, and anger that motivates us to take precautions. Sometimes you want to manage outrage upward so people will do something (or support your wish to do something) about a risk you think is serious. Other times you want to manage outrage downward so people won’t take unnecessary precautions (or demand that you take unnecessary precautions) about a risk you think is trivial.

The shorthand I typically use to talk about these tasks is “getting people more or less outraged.”

But except in emergencies (real or imagined), it’s impossible to get people more or less outraged. Mostly what we do is reallocate outrage. This is the Law of Conservation of Outrage.

People are who they are. Centuries ago, Galen theorized that people have varying mixes of four temperaments: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic. Your temperament is different from mine, of course. But neither of our temperaments is significantly different from what it was last week or last year.

In an emergency we can go into overdrive, tapping into “outrage reserves” needed to cope with the crisis. If the emergency lasts too long, or if we get stuck in overdrive after the emergency is over, the endless excess of outrage can take a profound emotional and physical toll.

In normal times, though, each individual’s capacity for outrage – that is, each individual’s inclination to get concerned, fearful, or angry – is pretty much a constant.

And most people’s capacity for non-emergency outrage is fully engaged already. People don’t spend a lot of time with unallocated outrage, looking (or waiting) for something to get outraged about. Quite the opposite. Most of us carry around a semiconscious backup list of things we really ought to be outraged (concerned, fearful, or angry) about, if only we had outrage to spare: the leaking brake fluid your mechanic can’t seem to fix, your children’s poor choice of friends, the war in Afghanistan.

There are occasional moments when outrage floats free for a little while before it finds a new object. A company trying to site a controversial facility, for example, would be wise not to choose a community that just successfully defeated a different controversial facility, lest the victorious opponents segue all too smoothly from the Committee to Stop X to the Committee to Stop Y, efficiently filling the new hole in their schedules and their lives. But that’s the exception. As a rule, people’s capacity for outrage is stable and fully engaged.

The Law of Conservation of Outrage has a number of important corollaries:

1. The natural state of humankind vis-à-vis any specific risk is apathy.

Most people, most of the time, are apathetic about most risks. We have to be; we haven’t got enough outrage to go around. Apathy doesn’t require an explanation. It’s the default. It’s normal. We are apathetic about any particular risk unless and until we feel impelled to take it on board, to make room for it in our “outrage agenda.”

2. Outrage is a competition.

When people become more upset about one risk, they need to become less upset about others in order to make room. If your spouse, parent, or child is diagnosed with a serious disease, for example, you’re likely to reduce your involvement in local political controversies. There’s a paradoxical exception: Occasionally people project outrage about one issue onto a different, more bearable issue – getting super-involved in that local political controversy in order not to think about a loved one’s illness. But usually we prioritize issues, and a new urgent priority crowds out some previous ones.

Thus, in the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, phone calls to pollution prevention hotlines plummeted. (That’s when I advised some of my corporate clients that this was an ideal time to come clean about any previously undisclosed pollution problems: to strike while the iron is cold.) I have heard that there was also a decline in car seatbelt use for a while after 9/11, but I haven’t found any confirmation.

3. There’s no need to worry about turning people into scaredy-cats.

My public health and industrial hygiene clients often tell me they want people to take precautions, but they don’t want to scare them. They seem to be willing to scare people about certain hazards (smoking, for example), but for the most part they insist on fact-heavy, emotionally bland messaging. This is a huge handicap. By far the most powerful tool of precaution advocacy is to arouse more outrage about the risk, while simultaneously giving people useful precautions they are capable of taking.

When I ask my clients why they’re so reluctant to scare people, they typically talk about the harmful effects of excessive outrage.

But if the capacity for outrage is a constant (except in emergencies) and arousing outrage is a competition, then my clients’ “fear of fear” is unnecessary. Here’s what I tell my clients: “The fundamentalist right wants people to be afraid of gay marriage. The environmentalist left wants people to be afraid of factory emissions. The deodorant industry wants people to be afraid of body odor. The American Cancer Society wants people to be afraid of cancer. You want people to be afraid of … whatever. Get your slice of the fearfulness pie! You may be diminishing the impact of the fundamentalist right, the environmentalist left, the deodorant industry, and the American Cancer Society, but you won’t be turning your audience into scaredy-cats.”

4. If people are more outraged at you than the situation justifies, you’re doing something wrong.

My outrage management clients come to me because they think people are excessively outraged about a small risk – usually the risk from something the client has done or wants to do. To start figuring out how to manage the outrage downward, my clients must first realize that they must have done things in the past that inadvertently managed the outrage upward.

Every time people are unduly concerned, fearful, or angry about you or your issue, you are the “winner” of a competition you didn’t want to win … and maybe didn’t even know you were in. The key to reducing the outrage (that is, the key to getting the outrage redirected at a different and, hopefully, more deserving object) is to figure out what you did to attract the outrage in the first place.

This isn’t symmetrical. Low outrage is normal. My precaution advocacy clients need to figure out how best to attract more outrage to their issue – but they haven’t done anything wrong that kept them from achieving this goal. My outrage management clients, on the other hand, have been digging their own hole. The first thing they need to do is stop digging.

5. Excessive outrage aimed at you isn’t your critics’ fault.

When you’re the target of other people’s excessive outrage, it’s extremely tempting to blame somebody else: the media, the activists, the plaintiff attorneys, and so on. It’s true that the media, activists, and plaintiff attorneys are in the outrage business. They certainly exacerbate outrage; they promote it and organize it. But they don’t manufacture it. They sniff it out and capitalize on it.

Just as companies typically have more investment opportunities than investment capital, their critics have more potential targets than they have time and staff to go after. They’re picking the low-hanging fruit. By the time they picked the XYZ Corp., the outrage at XYZ was already nearly ripe.

Or think of journalists, activists, and plaintiff attorneys as vultures. (It probably won’t go over too well to call them vultures to their face.) Now remember what you know about natural history. Vultures don’t kill their prey. They eat carrion, meat that’s already dead. So if a company has a vulture problem, by definition it has a prior problem. If it can find a way to stop committing organizational suicide, the vultures will still be vultures – but they’ll be circling somebody else’s carcass.

Instead of blaming the vultures, in short, the XYZ Corp. needs to focus on figuring out what it’s doing that keeps attracting vultures.

6. Outrage causes hazard perception – and we know what causes outrage.

I created my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula in the 1980s, grounded in earlier research by risk perception scholars Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, and Sarah Lichtenstein. These researchers had already identified most of the factors – which I labeled “outrage factors” – that determine whether people take a risk seriously or shrug it off.

Among the biggies: control, trust, responsiveness, voluntariness, morality, familiarity, memorability, dread, and fairness. No matter how dangerous or safe a particular risk is, people will tend to consider it dangerous or safe in proportion to how many of these outrage factors it triggers, and how strongly it triggers them.

The outrage factors, in other words, determine which issues are likeliest to attract a significant portion of people’s stable, limited supply of outrage. Of course, luck plays a role, too, and even actual hazard has some impact on outrage and hazard perception. But the outrage factors are paramount.

If you want your issue to win the outrage competition, you need to seduce (or pry) people’s outrage away from the issues it’s currently attached to. If you want your issue to stop winning that competition, you need to reduce the outrage attractiveness of your issue until people decide to reallocate their outrage elsewhere. What you can’t do is make people more or less outraged. How outraged they are is mostly a matter of temperament, and nothing you do will change it.

Copyright © 2011 by Peter M. Sandman