Help! The House Is On Fire! Do You Trust the Messenger?

I'll never forget the day my son's high school had a bomb scare.  I happened to get a text from a neighborhood group that something was going on at the school.  Perhaps because I'm a journalist, I immediately called our local newspaper to see what was going on.

Thankfully, it was a hoax, but now a new study says that I'm in the minority.  In a crisis, we're far more likely to look to others to second-guess what authorities have to say, when it's an environmental or health scare, according to

And the authorities want to know why. Given the 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.

 For their study, researchers 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.

 What the study seemed to show was 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, researchers say, 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.

 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.

 I guess if someone yells "Fire!" in a crowded theater, I'm most likely to run first, and ask questions later.


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