Reducing Actual Threat Doesn’t Translate Into Decreased Perceptions of Risk or Changes in Behavior, We Need Solid Risk Communication as Well!

Bernard Finel and John Mueller (I’ll respond separately to Camille Pecastaing’s commentary) offer spirited and at moments insightful objections to my central thesis that our dialog surrounding terrorism should have as its primary goal increased resilience to threats like terrorism. I also advocate we should confront fear of terrorism directly by risk communications grounded in behavioral science and implemented at both the national and community level. I gather from their comments they don’t think resilience is such a bad idea, but that we would do better to focus on reducing terrorism risks and assume the public will figure it out sooner or later. Their recommendation would be terrific if people really behaved the way they assume. Let me address some of the important issues they raise.

Fearing “fear” too much? Can we fear “fear” too much, as my colleagues suggest? Doubtful! Even during FDR’s administration there was no evidence we came to fear “fear” too much. In fact, Roosevelt never suggested that people trade one fear for another but only that they look fear in the face and not allow it to paralyze their motivation to recover or to look forward to a better day. Having witnessed a financial panic that nearly brought the nation’s banking system to collapse, he understood the havoc fear could reap. Through his fireside chats and work programs he helped the nation eventually bounce back. Dr. Mueller rightly points out that simply addressing fear during those challenging times did not turn the economy around (neither did the work programs for many years). But Roosevelt’s tactics may have had a momentous unintended consequence. His approach helped foster resilience and prepare a generation, still in the midst of a depression, to fight villains a lot worse than al-Qaeda. This earned these folks the well deserved honor as our nation’s “greatest generation.” We could learn a lot from how they faced adversity.

Reduce the Threat, Don’t Worry About the Message? We agree the threat of terrorism has at times been used to scare us into supporting policies that we regret now. The war in Iraq is approaching a trillion dollars and counting. However, we part ways on how best to assure the public that this threat is being addressed and that we are reasonably safe. Dr. Finel encourages a largely top-down policy that seeks to reduce the actual threat of terrorism and thereby reduce the public’s fear of terrorism. He advocates disentangling ourselves from counterproductive relations in the Middle East, improving our energy policy, and engaging in better intelligence gathering. I agree completely that we need to reduce this threat and I like his recommendations very much. However, he is mistaken to believe that reducing threat translates automatically into reduced perceptions of risk, and I’ll offer a counterexample shortly. Dr. Mueller recommends that we get real and focus on threats that have a reasonable likelihood of occurring — use our dollars wisely would be his advice. Yes, but what are the probabilities for certain terrorist risks? Clearly the odds of being injured individually are practically zero but the likelihood of another attack in the United States is devilishly tough to determine — we need to be careful with this course. Communicating directly with the public about their understandings and concerns does not appear to be high on my colleagues’ list of recommendations. One believes disciplined risk communication is unrealistic and unlikely by itself to solve real problems. The other thinks sharing probabilities is enough; the public will get it (or not). Let’s address these.

Will reducing the real risks surrounding terrorism necessarily lead to a change in the public’s perception of the threat? Not necessarily, unless we also address misperceptions and concerns. Look around at what people fear: we overestimate crime, but we underestimate diabetes. Perceptions of threat tend to be based on ease of recall and vividness of images. Recall and imagery are highly influenced by news reporting. Editorial decisions don’t necessarily track statistical risk and hence the big disconnect.

For a dramatic example, consider what happened to the nuclear power industry in this country. Industry executives and engineers went down the road Dr. Finel suggests. Arguably, we had the safest protocols in the world. But that didn’t matter after the accident at Three Mile Island. The industry collapsed under enormous public outcry. Outrage was not based on loss of life and property or damage to the environment (there wasn’t any). It was triggered by what the accident signaled to the public about the industry’s safety. Radiation is extremely difficult to communicate about, and there was a huge gap between expert and public understanding. Some economists place it as one of the most expensive accidents in human history. Ironically, our reaction to this accident (along with our lifestyle) increased our dependence on foreign oil, which set into motion factors (bad energy policy) that have contributed to our present terrorist threat. Take-away lesson: To be effective, reducing risk must be accompanied by identifying gaps in public understanding. Otherwise, people will draw their conclusions from the dramatic, often disproportionate depictions in the media and well-meaning associates. I do agree, however, that words not backed up by risk-reducing actions will not work well.

Can disciplined risk communication make a difference and solve real world problems amidst the unruly world of contemporary politics and media? Absolutely, and Barack Obama’s campaign showed us that it could be done. His risk communication challenge was asking the American public to bet on a complete newcomer, of different skin color than the previous 43, who lived in parts of the world that some would say are not as friendly to the United States as they could be, and during especially troubled times to boot. Yes, voting for president is one of the riskiest choices we make considering all that follows from it (Will anyone who’s been voting since 2000 doubt it?). Even non-supporters acknowledge that his victory was due in large part to extraordinarily disciplined messaging. His historic victory and the policy changes it signals may actually reduce the threat of terrorism worldwide.

Security Theater? Related to threat reduction and risk perception is security theater, an issue discussed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “The Things He Carried.” Here we have a kind of “fake it until you make it” policy that seeks to soothe public fears by engaging in security measures that are more for show than safety until we rid ourselves of the threat. Many activities at the airport fit this description according to some security experts.

Let’s stand back a moment and ask why a smart and largely well-intended security community would get involved with this kind of stagecraft. I’m going to skip the cynical view and offer a constructive explanation and recommendation based on my essay. Many of us have unrealistic expectations for safety because we do not have a good understanding how things go wrong and what it really takes to fix them. Instead of security theater there needs to be honest dialog at both the national and community levels about what we can actually do, and the costs involved. This kind of dialog builds trust whereas security theater only buys time. Dr. Mueller and Dr. Finel rightly encourage us to focus our efforts on likelihoods and tradeoffs respectively. But thinking meaningfully about each requires real communication between experts and the public, as I’ve outlined, in right expectations, right understanding and right dialog. We need to lay the ground work now rather than waiting until we are in the middle of a crisis.

Fear of Terrorism and Personal Freedoms? Survey results over the last few years give reason to be concerned that under some threatening conditions we might be willing to trade personal freedoms for increased security. This evidence may be compelling for some but much ado about nothing for others. There is the argument that despite significant threats over the years we still have more freedoms and protections than other countries. I’ll leave the finer points of this discussion to constitutional scholars and simply caution that we need to be careful about taking these freedoms for granted. There are limits to the protection that our constitutional checks and balances may provide in the same way as there were limits to the ability of our financial markets to self-regulate. Taking steps now to assure a well-informed and resilient public with regards to the threats we face in the future is a wise and prudent investment.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Path Well Taken: Making the Right Decisions about Risks from Terrorism by William Burns

    In his lead essay, William Burns argues that national discussion of terrorism can take one of two forms: It may be reflexive and fear-driven, or scientific and confident. He expresses hope that the new administration will choose the latter: In recent years, abundant research has been conducted on the social psychology of risk, and that of terrorist risk in particular. Moreover, the transition to a new administration offers an opportunity to change the official tone of public discourse about terrorism, and to employ many of the insights now being produced in social psychology. Burns outlines some of the major findings and describes how they might be applied to public counterterrorism policy.

Response Essays

  • Just Finding the Right Words Won’t Solve Real Problems (Or, Leave Madison Avenue Out of This) by Bernard Finel

    In his response to William Burns, Bernard Finel argues that “the fear of fear” can also be exaggerated: Panics come and go, and U.S. institutions that support liberty and limited government are more robust than we often tend to think. Finel also expresses skepticism about the power of messaging, which he terms a “blunt instrument.” Although terrorism has been used, regrettably, as a tool of partisan politics, the right response is simply to condemn this approach and leave it behind. A better message about terrorism won’t do much to combat public fear, in part because the U.S. government is just one voice among many, and fearmongers are still out there regardless of what it might say. Finel argues that a better strategy for actually ending terrorism might include U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, nuclear nonproliferation, and energy independence, among other measures, and that these, too, are likely to ease public fears.

  • Fearing Fear by John Mueller

    In his response essay, John Mueller assigns some (astonishingly small) numbers to the likelihood of being killed by terrorists. He also notes that the dangers of overreaction and fear are indeed quite great, often greater than the dangers that prompted the fear in the first place. Irrational fears lead to lost civil liberties, useless or near-useless government agencies and programs, and a variety of anxiety-related public health problems. Each of these may well be worse, in terms of hurting our quality of life, than whatever terrorism they were designed to stop.

  • The Death and Rebirth of Common Sense by Camille Pecastaing

    Camille Pecastaing argues that although the United States had faced terrorism before September 11, something about that particular attack clearly induced more widespread fear. Was it the magnitude of the attack? The foreignness of the attackers? The response of the Bush administration? A combination of all of these? Our answers, about which there is no consensus, may prove important in responding to future attacks.

    He also observes two particularities about the response to September 11: First, there was overwhelming momentum toward hysteria. And second, that momentum dissipated very quickly. Although we are still paying the price for this overreaction today, we at least inhabit a political world where the costs can be assessed soberly and where we can attempt to craft better counterterrorism strategies for the future.

The Conversation