Psychologists’ research has shown which communication strategies work and which don’t in curbing the spread of infectious disease, such as the swine flu, says Carnegie Mellon University cognitive psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, PhD.
But so far, the government isn’t applying best practices to their full potential, says Fischhoff, who serves on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee and chairs FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee.
That’s because policymakers at most federal agencies have been slow to include behavioral science evidence in their decision-making process, relying on their gut instincts in communicating with the public, rather than empirical research. Fischhoff says.
“People in these organizations, like people everywhere, exaggerate how well they understand their audiences and how well their messages are understood,” he says. “I hope our day is coming, but it is striking how much people’s welfare depends on officials’ willingness to gamble on their intuition.”
In 2005, Fischhoff testified before Congress about the ways psychological science could improve the messages officials were crafting in response to the threat of avian flu. That same research applies to our current situation with swine flu, he says, including:
- Tell people the truth, even if it’s worrisome.
- People can only handle so much information at once. Alerts should be organized to contain only the most critical facts.
- Emotions can interfere with people’s ability to make rational decisions. Risk communicators can help counter this interference by being direct and respectful with their audience.
- Evaluate whether your recommendations are reasonable for your audience. For example, don’t expect that low-income Americans can stock up on supplies or evacuate a city when there’s no reliable mass transportation. Otherwise, your audience won’t trust your message.
- Above all, treat people like adults. “People, in fact, are remarkably good at holding it together,” Fischhoff says.
Peter Sandman, PhD, a risk communicator in Princeton, N.J., who serves on the World Health Organization’s SARS Scientific Advisory Research Committee, agrees that you can’t go wrong by being straight with people.
“Preparedness doesn’t make you panic more, it makes you panic less,” he says. Being prepared helps you “tolerate the uncertainty,” which calms the panic that accompanies not knowing what to do.
Sandman thinks the administration has been too cautious in its approach.
“The government at the moment is terrified of frightening people [and] is also afraid of being accused of terrifying people,” he says.
If swine flu doesn’t become widespread and dangerous, he says, they don’t want to be accused of overstating the danger or fear-mongering.
Fischhoff is more optimistic, seeing encouraging signs in the administration’s communication effort.
“As far as I can tell, it looks like there’s an effort to coordinate the communication [across agencies], which is a sign of credibility,” he says, but it’s still too early to gauge how effective those efforts will be.
Ultimately, Fischhoff believes the key to successfully communicating risk lies in being as honest and relevant as possible.
“Give people the information they need for their decision-making,” he says, “and we can trust them to act responsibly.”
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Price