Social Contagion of Risk Perceptions in Environmental Management Networks


Address correspondence to Bret A. Muter, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, 480 Wilson Rd., 13 Natural Resources Bldg., East Lansing, MI 48824; USA; tel: 517-432-4943;


An important requisite for improving risk communication practice related to contentious environmental issues is having a better theoretical understanding of how risk perceptions function in real-world social systems. Our study applied Scherer and Cho's social network contagion theory of risk perception (SNCTRP) to cormorant management (a contentious environmental management issue) in the Great Lakes Basin to: (1) assess contagion effects on cormorant-related risk perceptions and individual factors believed to influence those perceptions and (2) explore the extent of social contagion in a full network (consisting of interactions between and among experts and laypeople) and three “isolated” models separating different types of interactions from the full network (i.e., expert-to-expert, layperson-to-layperson, and expert-to-layperson). We conducted interviews and administered questionnaires with experts (e.g., natural resource professionals) and laypeople (e.g., recreational and commercial anglers, business owners, bird enthusiasts) engaged in cormorant management in northern Lake Huron (n = 115). Our findings generally support the SNCTRP; however, the scope and scale of social contagion varied considerably based on the variables (e.g., individual risk perception factors), actors (i.e., experts or laypeople), and interactions of interest. Contagion effects were identified more frequently, and were stronger, in the models containing interactions between experts and laypeople than in those models containing only interactions among experts or laypeople.