Understanding how people perceive risk helps to develop more effective public safety strategies. Early exposure, upbringing and environmental factors, including socioeconomic factors, are thought to be the most influential in shaping individual and community perceptions of risk. People are thought to amplify the risks associated with infrequent and catastrophic events, such as a shark attack, and underestimate the risks associated with frequent events, such as swimming in a current. An individual’s motivation to take action is a balance of their own perceived vulnerability and the severity of an event.
Our ability to perceive risk can be impaired by factors such as alcohol, peer pressure and a lack of understanding. Risk perception can also be developed over time and may vary by activity. For example, a perception bias was identified among inexperienced rock fishers who misunderstood dangerous wave behaviour, while experienced fishers were able to perceive environmental conditions and read wave periods to identify and respond to any associated risks before it was too late. There is increasing interest to better understand the theories behind risk perception in water safety and the motivation for adaptation or change as knowledge and perceptions can drive behaviour change.