Understanding Terrorism Risk Perception And Improving Risk Communication

Principal Investigator: William Burns


A number of experiments and surveys have been conducted over the duration of this project that seek to understand how the public might respond to different types of disasters including natural disasters, terrorist attacks and even the financial crisis. Experiments have manipulated types and levels of disasters to understand which characteristics are associated with the highest perceived risks, strongest emotional response and most determined intentions to avoid the particular risk. These experiments have included disasters such as a major earthquake and biological, radiological and MANPADS attacks. On occasion, events have allowed surveys in the field to capture how people respond in real time (e.g., financial crisis, Christmas Day and Times Square terrorist attempts, Haiti earthquake and BP oil spill). These longitudinal surveys have provided insight into how perceptions, emotions and behaviors change over time in response to adverse events. Consistent across this work is that terrorism looms large in terms of perceived risk, emotions like fear and anger and avoidance behavior relative to natural disasters. Respondents offered explanations related to uncertainty and a lack of perceived control in such circumstances. They remark that it is difficult to get closure on such events because terrorist groups continue to plan and have the ability to wait for opportunity. There is an increased sense of vulnerability. Regarding technological accidents and terrorists attacks, biological and radiological events appear more freighting than do explosions though both are of great concern. The reasons offered refer to the unseen nature of biological and radiological agents and their potential long-term effects. While it is true that experts can measure by sampling or by instrument levels of these contaminants, still it requires a great deal of trust on the part public. Likewise, it is difficult to know whether certain levels of exposure lead to health problems in the future. Conversely, if a person was not injured in the explosion the risk is over (apart from a future mishap). Negative emotions like fear, anger, worry and anxiety appear positively correlated with perceived risk and avoidance behavior. There is evidence, in highly controlled experiments where these emotions have been induced, that anger is negatively correlated with perceived risk. However, throughout this project anger has been positively related to perceived risk, especially in real time events in the field. The predominant emotions expressed with respect to terrorism were first anger then fear than sadness. For natural disasters like Haiti it was almost exclusively sadness.