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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Public responds to risk communication

As usual, NPR had some fascinating analysis of the latest news story.  In this case, they have a couple of experts who discuss public response to disaster warnings.  Below is an excerpt, which is part of a larger article about public officials' choices in these situations.

Fearing Unlikely Events

Of course, people could blame officials for hyping things, but McGraw said, "They don't become outraged about that versus being told, 'Oh, it's safe to stay here' and have your house destroyed."

Risk-management expert Howard Kunreuther at the Wharton School in Philadelphia said his work shows that people say they want officials to focus on the dangers that are the most likely, but they expect officials to protect them against the things they fear most — which are sometimes extremely unlikely. Experiments done after the Sept. 11 attacks show that's not just true with natural disasters, but all kinds of threats.

"Individuals thought it was more likely for terrorists to strike a civilian object with a truck loaded with explosives than a hijacked airplane, Kunreuther said. "However, they were much more concerned about blaming the government for failing to prevent the hijacked airplane attack than the truck loaded with explosives."

So if you're an elected public official, should you focus on truck bombs, which are more likely, or airline security, which makes the public more scared? Policymakers face a dilemma: They can keep people safe but risk making them angry, or keep them happy and risk making them unsafe.

Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov said the disconnect between how we say we want policymakers to behave and how we judge them stems from a psychological bias.

"We have known in psychology for many years something that is called hindsight bias," Todorov said. "That looking back at the events that happened in the past, they look way more predictable than they actually were."

Kunreuther said the hindsight bias allowed people to blame others for their own actions and inactions.

"The disconnect is that often before the event, people will say, 'It's not going to happen to me,' " said Kunreuther. "So they don't pay attention themselves, by taking measures like purchasing insurance or making their house safer, but after the event there's a feeling that someone should have helped us here, we have a reason to blame them."



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