Risk Emotions in Uncertain Times

I have been thinking about Maha’s emotive post [1] for a couple of days now. For my PhD I have been doing a lot of reading recently around risk (as a requisite of trust) and how it often manifests irrationally.

As someone who is quintessentially white privilege, it should be easy for me to say that I don’t really have anything to be worried or scared about when it comes to surveillance, particularly government surveillance. But it’s not easy and I am deeply troubled by it. On a personal level I am concerned over corporate surveillance and what inferences might be made about me, particularly around my health (which I consider to be sensitive data). But on a larger scale, I am concerned over mass surveillance of everyone else and our limited power to do much about it.

Our perception of risk is individual and it impacts on our behaviours, for example a higher perception of risk impacts negatively on technology acceptance [3] and online self-disclosure [2]. These perceived risks may not always be rational. For instance, although the risk of being in a road accident is extremely high, comparative to being in an aeroplane accident, I don’t know anyone afraid of road travel, but several of air travel… What I am saying is that although on paper the risks may be low, we cannot help but respond emotionally. The likelihood that my messages are being tracked are (I hope) low but I still favour (and encourage other to use) end-to-end encryption.

A recent paper explores the importance of “risk emotions” in discussions around technology’s impact on society. This excerpt communicates a poignant point:

“Although it needs to be acknowledged that emotions can cloud our understanding and evaluation of evidence about risks, emotions can also provide invaluable insights that are overlooked in conventional, rationalist approaches to decision making about risk.” [4]

The researchers continue, stating that risk emotions are “an important source of insight into what people value,” [4]. This is a moment when we can deliberate over what risks we perceive (whether they are rational or not), to share them and to listen to others. We can engage in a meaningful conversation that is underpinned by a willingness to be open to others. Who knows maybe our concerns may be heard by those with the power to make change.


  1. Bali, M. (2017). What Kind of Surveillance Are You REALLY Concerned About?!? #digciz. Available online: https://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/what-kind-of-surveillance-are-you-really-concerned-about-digciz/#comments
  2. Zanella, G., Hallam, C., Talebi, N. (2016). Digital Health and Social Needs: An Empirical Study of Intentions and Behaviors. PICMET’16: Technology Management for Social Innovation.
  3. Tislar, C., Sterkenburg, J., Zhang, W., Jeon, M. (2014). How Emotions Influence Trust in Online Transactions Using New Technology. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 58th Annual Meeting.
  4. Roeser, S., Pesch, U. (2016). An Emotional Deliberation Approach to Risk. Sage Journals: Science, Technology, & Human Values. 

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