Metaphoric description of risks and their perception: are they useful or just “wordplays”?

Metaphoric description of risks and their perception: are they useful or just “wordplays”?

Oct 2nd, 2014

Metaphoric description of risks and their perception

A couple decades ago, German researchers in the field of theoretical risk management developed a series of metaphors to describe public perception of risks. They are summarized below, with examples:

description of risks and their perception

The Sword of Damocles an allusion to imminent and ever-present peril existing.

Sword of Damocles has a very high disaster potential, although the probability that this potential manifests itself is theoretically extremely low. Nuclear power plants (Fukushima), large-scale chemical facilities (Bophal, Seveso), hydro-dams and meteorite impacts are typical examples.

Cyclops it is only possible to ascertain either the probability of occurrence or the extent of damage while the other side remains uncertain. In the risk class Cyclops the probability of occurrence is largely uncertain whereas the maximum damage can be estimated. A number of natural events such as volcanic eruptions (Vesuvius), earthquakes (various “large one” like San Francisco, Tokyo, etc.) and floods belong in this category.

Pythias includes risks associated with the possibility of sudden non-linear climatic changes, such as the risk of self-reinforcing global warming or of the instability of the West Antarctic ice sheet, with far more disastrous consequences than those of gradual climate change. The extent of damage is unknown and the probability of occurrence also cannot be ascertained with any accuracy.

Pandora’s Box is characterized by both uncertainty in the probability of occurrence and extent of damage (only presumptions) coupled with high persistency. Beside persistent organic pollutants and biosystem changing endocrine disruptors can be quoted as examples.

Cassandra is characterized by a relatively lengthy delay between the triggering event (for example nuclear radiation exposure below a certain critical threshold) and the occurrence of damage. This case is naturally only of interest if both the probability and magnitude of damage are relatively high. If the time interval were shorter, the regulatory authorities would certainly intervene because the risks would be clearly located in the intolerable area. However, the distance in time between trigger and consequence creates the fallacious impression of safety.

Medusa refers to the potential for public mobilization. This criterion expresses the extent of individual aversion to risk and the political protest potential fueled by this aversion, both of which are triggered among the lay public when certain risks are taken. This risk class is only of interest if there is a particularly large gap between lay risk perceptions and expert risk analysis findings. Some innovations are rejected although they are hardly assessed scientifically as threat (cell phones, high voltage lines, etc.).

Below is a summary table where we have attempted to relate “knowledge level”, “degree of incertitude”, “main criteria” and finally the German metaphor name.

Knowledge  level Degree of uncertainty Main criteria Metaphors
Minimal Ignorance Probability of occurrence and extent of damage are highly unknown to science
  • Pandora‘s box
Fair Uncertainty Probability of occurrence or extent of damage or both are uncertain (because of natural variations or genuine stochastic relationships)
  • Cyclops
  • Pythias
  • Cassandra
High Known distribution of probabilities and corresponding damages Probability of occurrence and extent of damage are known
  • Sword of Damocles
  • Medusa


Now, in our societies we oftentimes see different accident types, with identical or very similar single-accident direct consequences, but very different global impacts, generate surprisingly different public reactions.

Would the metaphores help explaining why?



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Category: Consequences, Hazard, Probabilities, Risk analysis, Risk management, Tolerance/Acceptability, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Metaphoric description of risks and their perception: are they useful or just “wordplays”?”

  1. John Eric Pollabauer says:

    This article was well written and brings forth some interesting comparisons in which baselines may be drawn from situation o situation availing the reader to have a much more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Keep articles and blogs like this coming!

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