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What Makes the Public More Likely to Second-Guess Authorities During a Crisis?

Date: 2016-05-22
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What Makes the Public More Likely to Second-Guess Authorities During a Crisis? In a digital age when people have many information sources, during a crisis they won’t always seek guidance from the government or other official channels. But when might they? In a new study, two risk communication experts shed light on what makes people seek or ignore emergency information.

During an emergency or acute risk situation, such as a terrorist threat, school shooting, or flood, people need information to guide their responses. Will it affect me? How serious is it? But in our digital age, people won’t necessarily turn to the government for answers.

In fact, sometimes in a crisis people will look to others who second-guess what authorities have to say about a health or environmental risk. Given this rapidly changing reality of digital alternatives to any single information source, government agencies, medical professionals, and others increasingly want to understand what motivates people to seek, or to avoid seeking, information about threats and crises

Now, two experts, Jan M. Gutteling and Peter W. de Vries from the Department of Psychology of Conflict, Risk, and Safety, at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, have published a study on the “Determinants of Seeking and Avoiding Risk-Related Information in Times Of Crisis” that sheds new light on what makes people seek or ignore emergency information. Such understanding could help improve the way governments, medical professionals, and others prepare and develop such information, potentially making the management of an emergency more effective and predictable. The study was published in the online version of Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis.

For their study, the authors used data from 1,000 randomly selected Dutch citizens who were interviewed by phone about their responses to eight “fictitious but realistic crisis or emergency situations” varying in the degree of acuteness. For example, in an acute situation, “the smoke from the fire is blowing in your direction,” while in a non-acute situation it is blowing in the opposite direction. Descriptions of each situation briefly summarized the emergency situation and gave advice on how to deal with it.

After hearing the situations described, participants were asked about their first response upon hearing the warning. They also were asked to indicate the likelihood that they would act according to the advice, the likelihood that they would seek additional information, and the likelihood that they would do nothing. In addition, the respondents were asked about their demographics, their risk perception, their assessment of the trustworthiness of the message, and other factors, and they were asked a control question to assess whether they had remembered the crisis description and the advice. After participants who failed this so-called “memory test” were excluded from the analysis, results from 645 respondents were used in the study.

With some caveats regarding methodological issues, the authors state that their study results “provide a few interesting but also puzzling details.” For example, the authors find it puzzling that when individuals seek information about acute risk situations they do not seem to care about the reliability of the information source. This runs counter to how individuals care about source reliability in other non-acute risk situations. When a person needs to take immediate action, the authors suggest, he or she has no other option than to trust whatever message is available at the time. “The first sensible reaction when someone cries ‘wolf’ would probably be to run, rather than to think through the merits of this message or to check the credentials of the one crying out,” the authors write.

In their conclusion, Gutteling and de Vries note that the “dissemination of risk information is no longer monopolized by a single type of source or by a single stakeholder.” Given a crisis situation, whether individuals will decide to seek additional information and how they will respond depends on several factors. These factors are how severe the individuals perceive the risk to be, how competent they feel about being able to act on the advice being provided by authorities, and what they believe social peers expect of them in terms of information seeking in the face of the acute risk. However, these theoretical conclusions notwithstanding, the authors state that, given their study’s limitations, the value of their findings is more practical than theoretical. By understanding the factors that predict whether individuals will seek or avoid seeking additional information in times of crisis, crisis management authorities could develop more effective guidance materials for potential crises and improve their strategies for disseminating such materials.

Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA), an interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all who are interested in risk analysis, a critical function in complex modern societies. Risk analysis includes risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and risk policy affecting individuals, public- and private-sector organizations, and societies at a local, regional, national, or global level. See:

The complete study is available at:

People, Places & Things/ (via SRA, 3/17/16)


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