Get your slice of the 'fearfulness' pie

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Fear is like a pie (or money): There's usually not enough to go around. If you want people to take precautions, you have to compete for your share.

It's not absolutely impossible to get people to protect themselves even if you refuse to frighten them: You can try making the precautions fun, or making them mandatory, or making them habitual. But that's a little like trying to write a novel without using the letter "e" or playing basketball with one hand tied behind your back.

Fear is the strongest motivator we know for taking precautions.

If you're serious about getting your employees and your customers (and your top management!) to prepare for a possible influenza pandemic, you need to be serious about scaring them a bit.

It's time to get over our fear of fear.

And I think I have the key—a piece of information that can help you feel okay about fear as a risk communication tool. Here it is: fear is a competition. The competitors are many. And there's a slice of the fearfulness pie with your name on it. Use it or lose it.

The fundamentalist right wants people to be afraid of gay marriage. The environmentalist left wants people to be afraid of factory emissions. The deodorant industry wants people to be afraid of body odor. The American Cancer Society wants people to be afraid of cancer. You want people to be afraid of H5N1.

Each can succeed only at the expense of the others. Consider this factoid: In the months after 9/11, telephone calls to government antipollution hotlines plummeted. People were naturally more afraid of terrorism than previously. To make room for their expanded fear of terrorism, they had to be less afraid of other risks.

How fearful people are overall is an abiding character trait. It varies from person to person. But for any single individual, overall fearfulness changes extremely slowly. Most of us are more risk-averse today than we may have been in our younger years. But we're neither more nor less risk-averse today than we were last week (though we may be focused on different risks).

But don't we all experience moments of atypically high fear? Sure. But they are only moments. When I suddenly sense that I'm about to fall down a flight of stairs, my sympathetic nervous system launches a raft of physiological changes, changes that may help me cope with the emergency. For a little while (a few seconds for the fall down the stairs, maybe as long as a few months for 9/11) I am actually more fearful than usual. Then I settle into the New Normal. I return to my baseline level of fearfulness, but more of it is allocated to worrying about—and preparing for—slips and falls or terrorist attacks. Of course that leaves less for everything else.

Scaring people about pandemics, in short, isn't going to make them more fearful people. They're as fearful as they're programmed to be. So if you believe that pandemic preparedness is getting less attention than it deserves from your employees and customers, you should try to expand the pandemic slice of the fearfulness pie.

This is really two tasks:

  • Seize the “teachable” moment. Once in a while a chance comes along to provoke a brief spurt of pandemic fear—or to capitalize on a spurt that reality has already provoked. The next such teachable moment could be the discovery of an H5N1-positive bird inside the US, a new human-to-human bird flu cluster in Asia, a shortage of seasonal flu vaccine, or a television drama set during the 1918 pandemic. Seize the moment. Use it to achieve concrete goals—to teach specific facts, to inculcate specific concerns, to establish specific behaviors.
  • Consolidate your “gains.” The rest of the time it's a slog. You can't sustain high levels of pandemic fear; you have to settle for oscillating between fear and mere concern (and sometimes dipping lower toward apathy). When interest is comparatively low, as it is right now, concentrate on consolidating your gains. Keep reminding people that the risk hasn't gone away, and that there is still work to be done to get better prepared. Try to make sure the New Normal is less apathetic about pandemics than the old normal was.

There are those who believe that pandemic preparedness already has more than its fair share of people's fearfulness. They’re busy trying to persuade everybody (the media, your management, your employees) to worry about something else instead. Given their opinion, they are doing the right thing. And readers of this newsletter are doing the right thing when they work to increase their stakeholders’ pandemic fears.

An internationally renowned expert in risk communication and crisis communication, Peter Sandman speaks and consults widely on communication aspects of pandemic preparedness. Dr. Sandman, Deputy Editor, contributes an original column to CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing every other week. Most of his risk communication writing is available without charge at the Peter Sandman Risk Communication Web Site (www.psandman.com/). For an index of pandemic-related writing on the site, see http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm. For more on "fear of fear," see www.psandman.com/col/fear.htm (written with Jody Lanard).

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