Risk Communication and the Dynamics of Public Response

Camille Pecastaing offers a number of useful insights in response to my essay and Bernard Finel’s and John Mueller’s comments. He begins by pointing out that what I call fear in my essay is really anxiety. This is a good point, because fear is more visceral but anxiety endures well past the traumatic events. Anxiety and negative affect are closer to the reactions I am most concerned about. He also argues correctly that anger or outrage were common reactions to the events of September 11th. I do object to his use of the word hysteria however; this is a loaded term. I do not think hysteria accurately describes how most Americans responded to the attacks on the Twin Towers or the Pentagon.

Dr. Pecastaing speaks of a kind of conspiracy — dominant winds blowing in the same direction — in which the administration, media, and public together became numb to reason. I believe the public in a state of chronic anxiety ignored the probabilities of future attacks, failed to consider the opportunity costs of going to war, and, being distracted, failed to see other risks that eventually led to the financial crisis. Very puzzling was the media’s lack of serious investigative journalism leading up to the war.

Interesting is the comment pertaining to the Department of Homeland Security paradigm of zero-risk. This fantasy objective, as Dr. Pecastaing calls it, has big implications. If true, it suggests that that no amount of funding is too large in the effort to protect our country. As I indicate above, such focus has large opportunity costs. What do we give up in pursuit of this standard? The public appears to implicitly expect this level of protection as well. There is a sad irony here. The longer we go without being attacked the more pressure there may be for our nation’s leaders to adhere to unreasonable standards to avoid having another attack on their watch.

I agree that there are two primary dynamics that we need to pay attention to if we are to properly understand public reaction. First, there is the reaction of fear, anger, and anxiety that follows a terrorist attack. These emotions tend to amplify the risk causing us to overestimate the event’s impact. In this state of mind we may favor drastic rather than measured response. Second, we also observe that the public tends to self-correct in the months following an attack. This process helps put the breaks on overreaction. Whichever set of feedback loops is stronger will determine the net reaction at any given point after the attack. We would do well to study this balancing mechanism so that we can design risk communication strategies that help mitigate overreaction. Well designed risk communication may have enormous policy relevance in this regard.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.