Risk perceptions and distress are highly dependent on personal frames of reference. An individual's judgments, concepts, and perceptions may be biased and inaccurate. In some instances, the biases and inaccuracies can be classified and predicted because they follow known patterns in which we think about uncertainty. At other times, biases and inaccuracies result from personal knowledge, values, and aptitudes. In either case, people evaluate new information about threats to health and well-being in the framework of their judgments, concepts, and perceptions. New information may enhance personal understanding of our environment, it may be disregarded, or it may reinforce inaccurate ideas and ineffective responses. The environment may present a situation that people believe is beyond their ability to manage. Distress is typically the result. By a change in viewpoint or by direct action, an individual may be able to moderate a stressful situation and thereby, decrease the amount of distress. Mastery over a stressful situation may require considerable work by the individual who will have to examine the judgments, concepts, and perceptions that contribute to his or her distress.
Some aspects of our physical environment are more threatening than others and some interactions with our environment are more stressful than others. Many factors influence perceptions of environmental risk and choices of coping strategies. We make judgments and decisions within a framework that is described by cultural and personal values, historical and personal experience and knowledge, and institutional and personal capabilities. Over time, this framework changes. Some risks may increase while others decrease, new risks may appear as others disappear, and some risks may dominate while others become less important. As values, knowledge, and capabilities change, risk perceptions and coping options will change with them. Clinicians who evaluate and assist individuals experiencing distress from environmental interactions are confronted with the complicated, changeable, and yet, essential relationship between people and their world. The theories and findings of this relatively new field of scientific inquiry may be helpful to this process.
Baum A., Fleming R., & Singer J. E. ( 1983). "Coping with victimization by technological disaster". Journal of Social Issues, 39( 2), 117-138.
Bostrom A., Fischhoff B., & Morgan M. G. ( 1992). "Characterizing mental models of hazardous processes: A methodology and an application to radon". Journal of Social Issues, 48( 4), 85-100.