Groundviews

Post Election: Real Vs Perceived Risks

Meme via Sri Lanka Memes

The election of Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena has undoubtedly marked the dawn of a new era in Sri Lanka politics. Around the country and across the world we have witnessed a heightened level of optimism and hope, among many Sri Lankans. When the election results started to pour in, I joined hundreds of other over-caffeinated, adrenaline-high Sri Lankans living abroad, desperately searching for ways to feel connected and be part of the change. I spent long hours glued to my computer, maddeningly refreshing webpages, and scrolling up and down my Twitter feed. The excitement in the air was palpable.

Post Election, much has been written about the need for, and value of, continued citizen engagement in a much-needed political debate. Leading up to the Election and immediately thereafter, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated their utility as powerful platforms for continued, constructive dialog. The engagement offered through these relatively new technological platforms to Sri Lankans in the country and around the world is certainly exciting and commendable.

On the flip side though, over the past few days, we also witnessed examples of these same powerful platforms being used to misinform people and instigate fear. Even among my own network of ‘social media friends,’ images and texts were taken out of context, attributed to past events, are shared, depicting various doomsday scenarios; international conspiracies, LTTE uprisings, and unrest. Amidst the overflow of (mis)information, it is perfectly reasonable for us to wonder what kinds of “real” risks, if any, Sri Lankans are facing subsequent to the transition of power we just witnessed. Is there any real cause for concern?

One post-election doomsday scenario that I have seen frequently in social media is the risk of a LTTE insurgence; the possibility of another war. In fact, prior to the election, President Rajapaksa’s campaign capitalized on this “perceived risk of war” for political gain. We know that this has worked as an effective political strategy in the past, i.e. Sri Lanka Presidential Election 2010.

Fear based messaging in political campaigns, in social media, as well as face-to-face interactions is especially effective when it is difficult to distinguishing real (objective) risks from mere perceptions. This is not in anyway unique to the Sri Lankan context. In fact, cognitive psychological research provides us with many explanations as to why we are driven by fear; why our perceptions of risk are often inaccurate and fallible, yet powerful in our decision-making processes.

To understand why even “rational” individuals are unable to accurately estimate objective risks, we need to understand that our rationality is not only a product of the analytical mind, but of the experiences that we go through in our day-to-day life. Research suggests that even analytically minded individuals rely on strong “positive” or “negative” feelings evoked by their prior experiences to guide their judgments and decisions. Popular psychology professor Dr. Paul Slovic refers to this as the affect heuristic.1 The basic argument is that, images marked by positive or negative “affective feelings” alter our judgments and assessments of risks, not necessarily in line with objective assessments of risk. We often turn to affect-based decision-making (driven by feelings, as opposed to objective information) when decisions have to be made under time pressure or with limited information.

Researchers argue that even repeated “mere exposure” is capable of creating a positive or negative attitude towards objects/images: altering our judgments and decisions. During decision-making processes, feelings such as worry, fear, dread or anxiety often diverge from cognitive evaluations and have a different and sometimes greater impact on our risk assessments, affecting our decisions. For instance, salient images of the war in Sri Lankan media prior to the election may have evoked negative emotions in some, who decided to vote for/against the incumbent President. Repeated exposure to images of the former President himself may have developed positive/negative feelings in others who decided to vote for/against him.

While “affective feelings” are often useful in the sense that they help us make quick decisions, there are at least two important downsides to affect-based decisions. Firstly, there are natural limitations in our experiences (i.e., not all of us have been exposed to all natural stimuli alike, nor is it possible for all of us to know the most appropriate behavior for each potential environmental stimuli). Secondly, our affective reactions can be deliberately manipulated by those who wish to control our behaviors (e.g., voting behavior during an election, consumer behavior in the market place).

Evoking negative feelings (fear), either through past experiences, salient images, or through manipulation, results in greater perceived risk.2 For example, experiencing war first-hand, or being exposed to images of war, makes us overestimate the risk of a future war scenario. In fact, research suggests that evoking negative feelings is more effective in altering our risk perceptions than evoking positive feelings (for instance, seeing images of the war can alter our judgments at a higher rate than seeing images of a beautified city of Colombo).

As mentioned before, understanding the cognitive psychological basis of our judgments and risk assessments is important because our emotions can sometimes be deliberately manipulated to alter our decisions. In the Sri Lanka context, and for those of us who are constantly exposed to images that evoke positive or negative emotions, it is crucial that we operate with some understanding of how these images may be altering our own assessments of objective risks. Although perceptions are often different from objective realities, actions we take based on (mis)perceptions tend to carry very real consequences; consequences that can affect our collective futures and well-being.

So, the next time we see an object/image/internet meme that evoke strong positive or negative emotions, I suggest we exercise some caution before sharing it among our social-media friends and others.

Notes

  1. Slovic, Paul. Finucane, Melissa. Peters, Ellen. and Donald G. MacGregor. 2002. “Rational Actors or Rational Fools: Implications of the Affect Heuristic for Behavioral Economics.” In Intuitive Judgment: Heuristics and Biases, edited by T. Gilovich and D. Kahneman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Keller, Carmen. Siegrist, Michael. and Heinz Gutscher. 2006. “The Role of the Affect and Availability Heuristics in Risk Communication.” Risk Analysis 26: 631-639.